Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)

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Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave Edited by Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell Cultural Seeds: Essays on

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Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Edited by Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

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Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Edited by Karen Welberry La Trobe University, Australia and Tanya Dalziell The University of Western Australia, Australia

© Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell 2009 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher. Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell have asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the editors of this work. Published by Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate Publishing Company Wey Court East Suite 420 Union Road 101 Cherry Street Farnham Burlington Surrey, GU9 7PT VT 05401-4405 England USA British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Cultural seeds: essays on the work of Nick Cave. – (Ashgate popular and folk music series) 1. Cave, Nick, 1957– Criticism and interpretation I. Welberry, Karen II. Dalziell, Tanya, 1973– 782.4’2166’092 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cultural seeds: essays on the work of Nick Cave / [edited by] Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell. p. cm. – (Ashgate popular and folk music series) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-0-7546-6395-9 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Cave, Nick, 1957–Critisicm and interpretation. 2. Rock music–Social aspects. I. Welberry, Karen. II. Dalziell, Tanya, 1973– ML420.C39C85 2009 782.42166092–dc22 ISBN 978-0-7546-6395-9 (hbk) EISbn 978-0-7546-9466-3 (ebk.V)


Contents Notes on Contributors   General Editor’s Preface   Acknowledgements   Introduction    Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry

vii xi xiii 1

PART I  Cultural Contexts 1

The Light Within: The Twenty-first-Century Love Songs of Nick Cave  13 Jillian Burt


Planting Seeds   Clinton Walker

3 Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter   Karen Welberry 4 Nick Cave, Dance Performance and the Production and Consumption of Masculinity   Laknath Jayasinghe

31 47


PART II  Intersections 5 An Audience for Antagonism: Nick Cave and Doomed Celebrity   Chris Bilton


And the Ass Saw the Angel: A Novel of Fragment and Excess   Carol Hart



7 Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema   Adrian Danks 8

Grinderman: All Stripped Down   Angela Jones

109 123


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

PART III  The Sacred 9 From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author: Cave’s Religion   Robert Eaglestone


10 Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth   Nathan Wiseman-Trowse


11 Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave   Lyn McCredden


12 The Moose and Nick Cave: Melancholy, Creativity and Love Songs  187 Tanya Dalziell Index  


Notes on Contributors Chris Bilton is a freelance journalist living and working in Toronto, Canada. He is a regular contributor to the Toronto alt-weekly EYE WEEKLY, writing for both the music and city sections. He is also the music editor for the quarterly arts magazine UKULA and a regular contributor to a number of other local and international publications. He studied English at the University of Toronto, with a focus on modern poetry and existential philosophy and has post-graduate experience in magazine writing. He has been a fan of Nick Cave since a friend lent him a copy of Tender Prey. Jillian Burt’s journalism career began during the punk rock era and many of her earliest stories were on Nick Cave (including a section in Clinton Walker’s Inner City Sound). She then specialised in writing on computer technology, robotics, architecture and design for magazines around the world, including Blueprint and the design magazine ID, from New York. Her essay on the telerobotic art installations of Ken Goldberg was published in Spanish and Portuguese by D’Angelot Press in Madrid. A monograph of the store designs of James Mansour was published in Japan. She was featured in the anthology From Matt Black to Memphis and Back Again published by Rizzoli. She lived in Los Angeles for 11 years and invented a snap-together modular book-binding method. Since 1996 she has had a custom book-binding and publishing business, Editions Ballard, which is now based in Sydney. Tanya Dalziell is Associate Professor in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. She has published widely in the areas of modernism, gender studies, Australian literature and film, and cultural theory. She is the author of a monograph, Settler Romances and the Australian Girl (2004), and is currently working on two projects, one on mourning and the other on modernism and music. Adrian Danks is Senior Lecturer and Head of Cinema Studies in the School of Applied Communication, RMIT University. He is co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and editor of Cteq: Annotations on Film, a section of Senses of Cinema. His writing has appeared in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Real-Time, Screen Education, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is currently writing a book on the history and practice of home moviemaking in Australia.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Robert Eaglestone works on contemporary and twentieth-century literature, literary theory and philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas (1997), Doing English (1999, 2nd edn 2002), Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial (2001), The Holocaust and the Postmodern (2004) and articles on Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Samuel Beckett, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Imre Kertész, J.R.R. Tolkien, ethics, science, the Holocaust, archaeology and historiography. He has written for the THES, TLS, The Independent and The Guardian. He is a Literary Advisor to the British Council and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway’s Research Centre for the Holocaust and Twentieth Century History. He is the series editor of Routledge Critical Thinkers. Carol Hart is Visiting Assistant Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong where she teaches in the English Department. Laknath Jayasinghe researched his MPhil in Australian cultural and media studies at the University of Queensland, and is currently a PhD student of marketing at Melbourne Business School, the University of Melbourne. His academic interests include the study of cultural identity, consumer culture, and patterns of domestic, media and advertising consumption. Angela Jones is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia, where she is currently completing her thesis discussing the ways in which contemporary cultural ideas and themes may be interpreted through popular music, focusing specifically on albums by Radiohead, Wilco, Tom Waits and Bjork. In 2007 her article ‘Musical Apocalypse: Tom Waits’ Bone Machine’ was published in Forum, an electronic journal of the University of Edinburgh. She is also a musician; her first CD will be released through Old House Records in early 2009. Lyn McCredden is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Deakin University, Melbourne. She researches in poetry, Australian writing, indigenous cultures and the sacred. Publications include James McAuley (1992), Bridgings: Readings in Australian Women’s Poetry (1996), with Rose Lucas, and Feminism and the Sacred: Creative Suspicions (2002), with Frances Devlin-Glass. Clinton Walker published some of the first Australian fanzines including Pulp, with fellow punk pioneer Bruce Milne, and has gone on to become a colourful and groundbreaking music critic and cultural historian. His classic account of Australian punk and post-punk, Inner City Sound, first published in 1981, was reissued in expanded form in 2005. Walker’s other publications include Highway to Hell: The Life and Death of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, Stranded, Football Life, Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music and Golden Miles: Sex, Speed and the Australian Muscle Car.

Notes on Contributors


Karen Welberry has lectured in literary studies at RMIT University, La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has published in journals such as Kunapipi, PAN and Westerly, and in the collection, Wild Child: Children’s Literature and Ecocriticism (2004). Nathan Wiseman-Trowse is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom. He specialises in the study of popular music and has written work on the late-1980s British indie scene, symbolic disruption and guitar solo, and the role of psychogeography in music journalism. He has recently published his doctoral thesis entitled Performing Class in British Popular Music.

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General Editor’s Preface The upheaval that occurred in musicology during the last two decades of the twentieth century has created a new urgency for the study of popular music alongside the development of new critical and theoretical models. A relativistic outlook has replaced the universal perspective of modernism (the international ambitions of the 12-note style); the grand narrative of the evolution and dissolution of tonality has been challenged, and emphasis has shifted to cultural context, reception and subject position. Together, these have conspired to eat away at the status of canonical composers and categories of high and low in music. A need has arisen, also, to recognize and address the emergence of crossovers, mixed and new genres, to engage in debates concerning the vexed problem of what constitutes authenticity in music and to offer a critique of musical practice as the product of free, individual expression. Popular musicology is now a vital and exciting area of scholarship, and the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series presents some of the best research in the field. Authors are concerned with locating musical practices, values and meanings in cultural context, and draw upon methodologies and theories developed in cultural studies, semiotics, poststructuralism, psychology and sociology. The series focuses on popular musics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is designed to embrace the world’s popular musics from Acid Jazz to Zydeco, whether high tech or low tech, commercial or non-commercial, contemporary or traditional.  Professor Derek B. Scott  Professor of Critical Musicology University of Leeds

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Acknowledgements The editors would like to thank the following people for their help and advice with this book: Janine Barrand and Charlotte De Pace from the Arts Centre, Melbourne; the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia; Ken Gelder; Chris Healey; Geoff King; Lyn McCredden; Mark Mordue; the School of Communications, Arts and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University; Sue Martin; and Sue Thomas. Special thanks to David McGinnis and Rachel Willis from Mute Records. Lyrics by Nick Cave appear courtesy of Mute Song Limited.

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Introduction Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry

Commissioned especially for the exhibition on Nick Cave recently held in Melbourne, Australia, and given pride of place on the front cover of the accompanying catalogue, is a photographic portrait of Cave, its frame drawn in with visual motifs from eras other than those of the twenty-first century. The backdrop is by Tony Clark, a brightly-hued landscape of acrylic dusty pinks and aquamarine; in the foreground is Cave, photographed by Polly Borland and cast between two swaying, impressionistic trees. Given the ostensible outdoor setting, Cave’s left elbow and right wrist sit somewhat incongruously on a low shelf or high table on which a marble bust of Jesus rests. The subject looks directly at the camera: is this look a challenge or an invitation? Cave’s shoulders are slightly sloped as the placing of his arms would necessitate, and they are somehow formally, solemnly rigid; his white shirt collar, casually opened beneath a dark suit jacket with which it strikingly contrasts, contributes to the sharp geometry of the photograph, a feature that sits interestingly, jarringly, alongside the more fluid, imprecise paint strokes of its surroundings. In yet further contrast, the Sacred Heart of Jesus bust, itself formally smooth, monochromatic and in the margin of the composition, has a gaze that is typically downcast, suggesting more an inner reflection than the public self-fashioning that the portrait of Cave is presenting, making clear that what is facing out from the cover of this catalogue is not so much Cave as yet another image of Nick Cave and asking its viewers to regard it as such. Inside the catalogue are many other photographs of Cave, as might well be expected. Most are familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in Cave’s career: Cave photographed, skinny and secularly Christ-like, above São Paulo; Cave hamming it up with various band members; Cave nearly always sensibly suited. Perhaps that is why there is one photo of the adult Cave in the collection, also by Borland, which stands out. Located on the set in Winton, Queensland, Australia, of the film, The Proposition (2005), to which Cave provided the script and the soundtrack (the latter with Warren Ellis; long-time collaborator John Hillcoat directed the movie), this photograph has much more of a documentary feel about it than the one adorning the catalogue’s cover. By all accounts, the film set was, to use the fitting Australian vernacular, ‘stinking hot’, with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius for days on end, and the background of this Borland photograph is appropriately bleached of colour with long, parched grass 

Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne, 2007).

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

protruding in the foreground of the shot and a spindly, leaf-less tree trunk in the background. Cave is pictured with Tom E. Lewis, a musician and actor who played the character of Two Bob in The Proposition, and a bridled white horse, which is placed at the physical centre of the photograph but on the viewers’ left-hand side of the unlikely trinity. It is Cave who draws the eye, however, not only because an audience might be particularly looking for him in the context of the photograph’s publication: this pull is also felt because, in part, this is not the image of Nick Cave so many other photographs, both those in the catalogue and beyond, would have us know and recognise. Here, in the Australian outback, the heat-trapping tailored suit is understandably discarded and Cave stands – his gaze this time directed somewhere outside the frame, his ­ arms awkwardly straightened by his sides – dressed in knee-length shorts (shorts!) and thongs (thongs!, or flip-flops as they are sometimes known outside Australia). Yes, the signature cigarette hangs from his left finger-tips (one fears of the bush-fire carelessly discarded ash might produce in such a dry, brittle place), and there is nothing, really, to prompt such expressions of surprise at the fleshy exposure of knees and toes­­ – remember the inhumane temperatures – except for the fact that this image of Cave is not part of the cluster, with internal modifications, that is routinely circulated to signify and identify ‘Nick Cave’. If the image of Nick Cave has a recognisable shape that is thrown into particular relief by a photograph of Cave ‘out of place’, out of ‘his’ urbane, suited setting, then the work of the subject who might resemble an occasional likeness to the picture is arguably even more diffuse. As Ginny Dougary pointed out some years ago: ‘if you didn’t know what Nick Cave does, you would be hard-pressed to guess’ from his ‘unusual curriculum vitae’. This comment, most apt in 1999, is even more so now. In the past four years, in addition to his release of the latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! in 2008, and in 2007 of the self-titled debut album of a new band-project, Grinderman, and an induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame (the peak Australian music industry body), Cave has been awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia; lectured at the State Library of New South Wales in Australia; curated the Berlin segment of a film festival in Brighton, England; seen his screenplay of The Proposition actualised as film; spoken about the poetry of Philip Larkin on Britain’s Radio 3; co-scored a number of plays for the Icelandic Vesturport Theatre; and been voted fifth ‘Best Dressed Man in the World’ by Esquire magazine, among many other accolades and achievements. He has also won the Q ‘Classic Songwriter’ award, the inaugural Gucci award for ‘personalities outside the movie industry who have made a remarkable artistic contribution to film over the past 18 months’, and, with Warren Ellis, the Australian IF and AFI Awards 

Ginny Dougary, ‘The New Romantic: Interview, Nick Cave’, 23 Mar 1999 [Online], available at, accessed Oct 2007. Versions of this interview were published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 1 May 1999.


(national film industry awards) for best music score for The Proposition. No less significantly, at least to those living in his former hometown of Melbourne, Cave’s song ‘Release the Bats’ (1982) was chosen as the symbolic ‘first song’ to be played in the new premises of the iconic, independent community radio station, 3RRR. Even for a radio station that long used the breathy and hilarious Bongwater lyric, ‘They have Nick Cave dolls now? I want one’ as a promotional sound bite, this is indeed an honour. Cave is now widely recognised as a songwriter, musician, novelist, screenwriter, curator, critic, actor and performer. From the band The Boys Next Door (1976–80), which formed in Melbourne, Australia, and included Cave’s school friends Tracy Pew, Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert, to the spoken-word recording ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’ (1998), to the recently acclaimed screenplay of The Proposition and Grinderman, Cave’s career spans 30 years and has produced a comprehensive (and sometimes controversial) body of work that has arguably shaped contemporary alternative culture and generated wide-spread comment. His songs have been covered by artists as varied as Metallica, Johnny Cash and the Afghan group, Hhalil Gudaz, Fazila Hijeb & Ramen Nawa, and he has been photographed by Anton Corbijn and painted by Howard Arkley. It is no exaggeration to state that Cave is an almost daily reference point in the international news and music media, a distinction of sorts that arguably reached a new height with Cave’s 1995 duet with pop superstar Kylie Minogue. This cultural moment was seized by many as particularly resonant; whether it was ‘light’ meeting ‘darkness’, the ‘alternative’ becoming ‘mainstream’, or the ‘turning point’ in Minogue’s career depended on your viewpoint. What was not in question in media coverage of the coupling, however, was the felicitous strangeness or irony of the partnership, deriving from the polar opposites each party was seen to represent. Despite this intense media interest in Cave, though, there have been remarkably few comprehensive appraisals of Cave’s work, its significance and its impact on understandings of popular culture. It is this absence the present volume seeks to address and redress. This book is the first collection of essays on the work of Cave. It is a ‘scholarly’ book in the best possible sense, involving people who have taken time to reference their sources because they care about the sharing of ideas. The aims of the collection are threefold: to compile a comprehensive scholarly and critical overview of Cave’s work and its wider, ongoing cultural significance; to bring together interdisciplinary scholarship addressing Cave’s work and its influence from a number of perspectives; to produce an edited collection that is of interest to general audiences and academics alike. From the essays commissioned for this volume, three central areas of concentration have emerged: contexts for Cave’s work and its reception; the importance of Cave’s work from different perspectives; and the nature of Cave’s engagement with both religious and secular mythologies. As such, the essays are Bongwater, ‘Nick Cave Dolls’, The Power of Pussy LP (Shimmy Disc, 1991).

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

not intended as critique in any narrow, negative sense, but rather, as Michel de Montaigne first conceived the term, as essais: explorations, ‘trials’, perspectives taken for the purpose of testing thought, and what it is that is useful to know. In many ways these essays are not about Nick Cave at all, but about the worlds his work has variously opened or revealed. The chapters that follow offer a mixture of close textual analysis and broader theoretical and historical discussion that are accessible both to those without specialised knowledge of Cave’s career, and to those unfamiliar with the specialties of academic discourse. Indeed, the volume recognises that scholarly analyses of cultural producers who have achieved their primary fame in the field of popular music are often criticised for paying undue attention to the textual dimension of the artist’s work. We have sought to avoid this (perceived) problem by inviting contributors from a range of different perspectives and disciplines. The contributors secured for this volume have expertise and/or experience in music history and analysis, cinema studies, performance studies, media studies, popular culture studies, and cultural and literary studies, and all write with an eye to a broad audience. The variety of essays in this volume attest to Cave as an interdisciplinary artist who warrants attention from literary, visual and cultural studies, as well as from the popular music press. With this in mind, the book is squarely aimed at the general reader interested in the intersections of music, literature and popular culture, and it is hoped its appeal will extend to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and to teachers in the arts and humanities. As mentioned above, despite Cave being an almost daily reference point in international news/music media, there is remarkably little literature in scholarly periodicals and collections. On the one hand, and to date, Cave’s work has featured (fairly negatively) in chapters of books with their own cultural studies agenda: examples include Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s The Sex Revolts (1995); McKenzie Wark’s Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (1999); Susan Broadbent’s Liminal Acts (1999), and a scattering of academic articles. This is in stark contrast to the attention that Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, for example, have attracted, artists who are often considered Cave’s mentors, if not peers. On the other hand, more ‘personal’ aspects of Cave’s life and career have been

Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Cambridge, MA, 1995).  McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale, 1999).  Susan Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London, 1999).  See, for example, Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (London, 2003); David Boucher, Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (London, 2004). 


extensively covered in biographies and documentary films, and in newspaper and magazine features. Numerous interviews have been published and/or broadcast on TV and radio. Recent notable examples include Melvyn Bragg’s profile of Cave on The Southbank Show (2003)10 and Debbie Kruger’s interview with Cave in Songwriters Speak (2005).11 Many of the interviews Cave has given over the years are available online at the unofficial website.12 Further, Cave’s discography and musical influences have been comprehensively charted, most recently in Amy Hanson’s Kicking Against the Pricks (2005),13 and in Original Seeds Vol. 2 (CD, 2004)14 compiled and annotated by Kim Beissel. And both Stranded (1996)15 by Clinton Walker and A Long Way to the Top (TV series, 2001),16 produced by Larry Meltzer and Greg Appel, use Cave’s career to speak of broader patterns and turning points within the Australian music scene. While none of these projects overlap with the focus of our own, they do indicate growing public interest in Cave as a major contemporary artist. The first chapter in this volume is a long-gestated essay by Jillian Burt. Burt’s wide-ranging essay is informed by her personal, journalistic and intellectual association with Cave. Rejecting the pervasive clichés about Cave as a gothic ‘doom merchant’ as completely nonsensical, Burt places his work within its wider cultural and aesthetic contexts with a particular interest in sketching out the spiritual landscapes of Cave’s songs, and neatly setting the scene for the volume as a whole. In a similar manner, Clinton Walker’s contribution to the volume, which comprises the second chapter, also turns a journalistic eye to the ‘early years’ of Cave’s career, to which Walker was both witness and participant. His essay,  Ian Johnson, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1995); Robert Brokenmouth, Nick Cave: The Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures (London, 1996); Maximilian Dax and Johannes Beck, The Life and Music of Nick Cave: An Illustrated Biography (Berlin, 1999).  Bram Van Splunteren, dir., Stranger in a Strange Land, TV documentary (Dutch VPRO TV, 1987); Uli M Schueppel, dir., The Road to God Knows Where, 1990, on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Road to God Knows Where/Live at the Paradiso, DVD (Mute Records, 2005); Simon Safranek, dir., The Myth (Czech Republic, 2002). 10 The South Bank Show, ep. 607: Nick Cave, TV Documentary (UK TV, 2003). 11 Debbie Kruger, Songwriters Speak (Balmain, 2005). 12 Nick Cave Online, website, available at 13 Amy Hanson, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London, 2005). 14 Various artists, Original Seeds, Vol. 2, comp. Kim Beissel, CD (Rubber Records, 2004). 15 Clinton Walker, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music (Sydney, 1996). 16 Greg Appel, dir., Long Way to the Top, TV documentary (Australian ABC TV, 2001).

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

therefore, offers a unique perspective on the context on which Walker proposes to shed new light. Contesting what is often seen as the ‘official’ historical narrative of Cave’s trajectory, which commences with Cave arriving in England in 1980, Walker seeks to recover what are consequently seen as the ‘lost Antipodean years’, before The Birthday Party relocated to the northern hemisphere. Walker argues that these formative years in Australia, in the band-guise of The Boys Next Door, have been overlooked in the rush to point out Cave’s (post-)punk credentials, and he sets himself the task of rethinking and re-evaluating this early artistic and musical milieu. Together Burt and Walker, in their historical tracking of various Cave career points, highlight both the environments in which Cave has worked and the ways in which Cave’s creative output has, in turn, impacted on personal, national and international trends in musical culture. There is something about the immediacy of Cave’s diverse music, these writers suggest, that gets inside the individual listener and the wider but by no means homogenous listening community, with profound effects. The third and fourth chapters of the volume extend on the observations made by Burt and Walker. If Walker implicitly seeks to overturn a history of Cave’s career that recycles a familiar colonial inheritance – that an artist has not ‘made it’ until success is achieved ‘overseas’, in this case at the not-quite-ex-centre of empire – Karen Welberry’s piece on humour, Romanticism and the influence of Colin Cave on Nick Cave’s oeuvre proposes to take Cave’s language of laughter seriously as a decolonising fiction. She convincingly suggests that Cave’s satiric interest in Romantic poetry can be read as a response to the demand of school children in Australia, and elsewhere in the British empire, to recite a poetic canon that speaks little of their specific cultural landscape. Yet, Welberry also recognises that this engagement contains an element of recuperation, particularly with respect to the Romantic idea of ‘creative imagination’, which takes on a special resonance when viewed in the knowledge of the work Cave’s father performed in shaping the future direction of education in Victoria in the 1960s and ’70s. Laknath Jayasinghe’s chapter on Cave, the fourth in the volume, centres on the production of masculinity through dance performance. Cave is perhaps not widely applauded as a dancer in any conventional sense; Jayasinghe’s chapter, for its very focus, draws unique attention to Cave’s bodily gestures, particularly as these developed around the 1970s ‘Crystal Ballroom’ scene in Melbourne, Australia, and against the ‘pub-rock’ scene of the same era and place. Arguing that recent dance theories attentive to the performance of gender and sexual identity may be applied to rock music performances, Jayasinghe takes as his ‘text’ recorded Cave choreography and argues that his movements stage a progressive politics of gender and sexuality that contrasts sharply with other imaginings of masculinity on offer in Australia and elsewhere during the 1970s and early 1980s. The first four chapters in this volume address ways in which Cave has been informed by, and/or informs, particular cultural scenes and how these create levels of meaning to his work. The second part of our volume, ‘Intersections’,


turns to broader ways in which aspects of Cave’s work circulate globally. The chapters in this section offer close readings of decidedly different texts. First up is Chris Bilton’s chapter, which explores the way in which Cave has thematised the notion of celebrity death in his song writing from The Birthday Party onward. Bilton observes that the idea that the singer/celebrity achieves renown through ever-increasing excess that can only end in his/her own demise is dramatised in many Cave songs, as well as being enacted in often violent and dangerous stage performances. Through close analysis of key songs such as ‘Sonny’s Burning’, ‘King Ink’, ‘Black Crow King’, ‘A Box for Black Paul’ and ‘Lay Me Low’, Bilton charts the progression of Cave’s thinking on this topic. He not only demonstrates that Cave had an early and sophisticated understanding of the marketing of ‘rock stars’, but that it is this very self-awareness that has saved Cave from fulfilling a similar destiny: he emerges in the twenty-first century as both the least, and most, likely celebrity survivor. The sixth chapter of the volume sees Carol Hart offer an extended literary meditation on Cave’s novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989). On publication, the novel attracted wide popular interest, yet to date there has been a curious resistance to engage with the text beyond the review columns of newspapers and magazines. Hart’s essay offers an important and timely close reading of the novel that eschews the largely celebratory lip-service paid to the novel on release and chooses instead to explore the gothic qualities of the novel, not in the sense of equating Cave’s texts with formulaic assumptions about the genre, but rather in examining what Hart terms the novel’s aesthetics of excess and fragmentation. Adrian Danks’s contribution, the seventh in this book, shifts emphasis away from ‘the literary’ to ‘the cinematic’ and in so doing draws attention to and offers yet another perspective on Cave’s creative interests. As Danks makes clear, and as Hart’s piece similarly attests in its own literary context, Cave’s contribution to the cinematic medium is little discussed, and he sets out to remedy this oversight by discussing Cave’s role as an actor, writer, composer and collaborator on a range of films. The film concept of the auteur is particularly suggestive for Danks’s readings of Cave’s cinematic forays, and he uses it to good effect to tease out Cave’s various roles and endeavours, with a specific focus on The Proposition, to provide the first substantive analysis of Cave’s work in the cinema. Angela Jones’s work on Grinderman, Cave’s most recent project at the time of this volume going to press, also offers an extended study of an aspect of Cave’s work that the restricted column spaces of popular music magazines simply cannot undertake. In this eighth chapter of the book, Jones takes up the idea of performance that Jayasinghe’s chapter, and others, also have an interest in, tailoring it to allow her to discuss Grinderman’s deliberate and knowing ‘acting out’ of rock ’n’ roll tropes. She argues that the stated desire to ‘strip down’ the album is a response not only to the figurings of Cave, as persona and voice, in the Bad Seeds, but also to wider musical constrictions and prescriptions that Grinderman seeks to expose and reject.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

The ninth chapter in the volume marks out the beginning of another of the book’s sections; an interest in ideas of myth, the sacred, religion and creativity, which preceding chapters also touch on. Robert Eaglestone’s ambitious contribution sets out to chart the shifts in Cave’s attitudes to religion. Eaglestone does not presuppose knowledge about Cave’s personal faith – he carefully sets out that such a biographical approach is not his aim – but rather examines Cave’s public musical career to identify changes in the source and use of religious motifs and discourses, and to set these movements in the context of, and in response to, larger debates about and between religious belief and secular modernity. Taking a somewhat different tack, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse approaches the sacred, or a contiguous idea of the sacred, by looking to the iconography of Elvis Presley in Cave’s music and writing. Using the myth of Presley, and sharing an interest with Jones’s contribution, Wiseman-Trowse argues in this eleventh chapter that Cave examines what it is that makes Elvis an archetypal image in Western popular culture suggestively connected to wider rock culture mythologies that underpin rock culture. Lyn McCredden’s chapter returns to more conventional imaginings of the sacred, but not in a commonplace way. Crossing a wider range of creative texts, this twelfth chapter singles out the relations between the erotic and the sacred in Cave’s work to raise a number of interrelated questions about the role of theology in Cave’s songs and other writings, the force of loss as an absence around which much of Cave’s work turns and what it might mean for Cave, and religiosity more broadly conceived, to imagine a poetics of the erotic and the transcendental that interweaves the spirit and the flesh, the earthly and the heavenly, the sacred and the profane. A shift of gears comes with the last chapter, by Tanya Dalziell. McCredden writes with great elegance on sacredness in Cave’s works; Dalziell takes her cue from the most secular and most unlikely of figures to which Cave refers only in casual, good-humoured passing when discussing writerly inspiration: a moose. She does so to forward some ideas about creativity and melancholy in Cave’s lyrics and music. Wishing to sidestep now familiar appreciations of Cave’s work that deem it (and Cave himself) as melancholic a priori, Dalziell, by means of various and seemingly unrelated references – a mid-nineteenth century painting by Holman Hunt, Robert Burton’s sixteenth century The Anatomy of Melancholy, among others – points to the performance of melancholy in the love songs in particular that comes about in the interplay between music and lyric, and in the face of the limitations of the language of love. These chapters are beginnings. Each recognises the complexity of ‘Nick Cave’ and his works in various contexts over the past three decades, and seeks to clarify and explore their significance to contemporary culture.


Bibliography Appel, Greg, dir., Long Way to the Top, TV documentary (Australian ABC TV, 2001). Barrand, Janine, and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Bongwater, The Power of Pussy LP (Shimmy Disc, 1991). Boucher, David, Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (London: Continuum, 2004). Broadhurst, Susan, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London: Cassell, 1999). Brokenmouth, Robert, Nick Cave: The Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures (London: Omnibus, 1996). Dax, Maximilian, and Johannes Beck, The Life and Music of Nick Cave: An Illustrated Biography (Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag, 1999). Dougary, Ginny, ‘The New Romantic: Interview, Nick Cave’, 23 Mar 1999 [Online], available at page/3, accessed Oct 2007. Hanson, Amy, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London: Helter Skelter, 2005). Johnson, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1995). Kruger, Debbie, Songwriters Speak (Balmain: Limelight Press, 2005). Nick Cave Online, website, available at Reynolds, Simon, and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1995). Ricks, Christopher, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (London: Viking, 2003). Safranek, Simon, dir., The Myth (Czech Republic, 2002). Schueppel, Uli M., dir., The Road to God Knows Where, 1990, on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Road to God Knows Where/Live at the Paradiso, DVD (Mute Records, 2005). The South Bank Show, ep. 607: Nick Cave, TV Documentary (UK TV, 2003). Van Splunteren, Bram, dir., Stranger in a Strange Land, TV documentary (Dutch VPRO TV, 1987). Various artists, Original Seeds, Vol. 2, comp. Kim Beissel, CD (Rubber Records, 2004). Walker, Clinton, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1996). Wark, McKenzie, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale: Pluto Press, 1999).

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PART I Cultural Contexts

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Chapter 1

The Light Within: The Twenty-first-Century Love Songs of Nick Cave Jillian Burt

All of us are born explorers. From the very beginning, as infants and young children, we are a curious species of animal. We observe, reach for, and question everything around us. Many of us carry throughout our lives a series of fundamental questions we seek to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? When we consider the intricate patterns of life on earth – how everything connects with everything else – our questioning becomes all inclusive. Where did the earth, and the life forms on it come from? Where are we going?

Thirteen years ago I mailed Nick a letter that described how I’d begun to recognise symbols from ancient Greek and Roman myths in his songs. I gave it a heading: ‘The Love Songs of Nick Cave’. The mythological symbols identified even his darkest, bloodiest songs as love songs for all of humanity, grappling with love as agape, a selfless love of others. It wasn’t yet fashionable to call them love songs. At that time The Murder Ballads (1996) album had recently been released and Nick was recording the spare, crystalline outlines of the songs for The Boatman’s Call (1997) album (which he sent me on cassette). I was beginning to delve deeply into Buddhism at the time, and the songs on the cassette – those that appeared on The Boatman’s Call and those that emerged later, on the B-Sides and Rarities (2005) set – made reference to The Gospel of Thomas, a Christian scripture discovered in 1945 that has parallels with the Buddha’s teachings of inner divinity and a sense of personal responsibility. Elaine Pagels opens her study of The Gospel of Thomas with a quote from the video artist, Bill Viola: ‘It’s an invisible world out there, and we’re living in it.’ I carried around Nick’s songs on my Walkman and they operated as a field guide to this invisible world; through them I could recognise the spirit alive (or not) in the people of the city. When I reached for the words to describe something inexpressible, frequently those words were from Nick’s songs. For instance, young, affluent men in trendy business suits holding fistfuls of hip techno-devices  Robert D. Ballard, Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep Sea Exploration (Princeton, NJ, 2000), p. vii.  Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York, 2003), p. 1.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


who were sitting on Melbourne’s free City Circle tram, looked straight through a disabled man struggling and lurching as he tried to swing his crutches and himself onto the tram. ‘But watch the one falling in the street’, Nick sang in ‘As I Sat Sadly by Her Side’. ‘See him gesture to his neighbours. See him trampled beneath their feet’. And I comprehended the title of the Let Love In (1994) album when I saw a blind man with his guide dog busking on Swanston Street in Melbourne. He played a voluptuous acoustic Spanish guitar and wore two hearing aids. His singing had a distant quality, as if he were remembering the music rather than hearing it as he played. His music was magnificently sad, reminiscent of Portuguese fado ballads. At the end of the Eagles song, ‘Desperado’, after he’d sung the lines about letting somebody love you before it’s too late, he reached around and stroked the muzzle of his guide dog. It occurred to me that to ‘let love in’ is to be humble enough, to strip away one’s defences enough, to accept love. I gain insights from Nick’s songs in the same way that he gathers the insights to write them, by bringing them into the life of the city. He drives around, without destination, just listening, soaking in the world around him. I first heard the new Bad Seeds album Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) while Nick was in Sydney for the Grinderman tour in October of 2007, driving around Sydney’s inner city and North Shore with him, along the harbour, on a cool, clear Monday morning. The sounds of the city are in the dazzling beauty of the musical arrangements of the album: temple bells clanking like heavy machinery and a sensual groove, sunshine reflected from the surfaces of buildings and water turned into sound. Lazarus digs the dark, funky underworld of New York City in the 1970s. Maybe he’s buying branded ‘blue magic’ heroin supplied by the drug lord from Ridley Scott’s movie American Gangster, who has it shipped from Vietnam in military coffins with the bodies of soldiers returning home. Lazarus experiences the spiritual sugar-rush of San Francisco in the aftermath of the summer of love. Joan Didion chronicled this time, but while readers saw the era’s treacly reaching for peace and love, baby, she was writing about the absence of a core myth to guide people. She saw the coming of an apocalypse that W.B. Yeats had alluded to in his poem ‘The Second Coming’ in 1921. Anarchy has been ‘loosed upon the world’ and ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. Nick’s itinerary for Lazarus includes Los Angeles, probably at the time that Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys crossed paths with Charles Manson. Lazarus may be brought back from the dead but he isn’t reborn. He falls on hard times, becomes homeless, goes mad and becomes violent.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘As I Sat Sadly by Her Side’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  W.B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’, 1921, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (London, 1982), pp. 210–11. 

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There’s Definitely Something Going on Upstairs At the end of the nineteenth century, a predatory mysticism exploited the incorporeal advances in science – the x-ray, recorded and projected sound, electricity – and created a fad for contacting the spirit world. The recorded sound industry was pioneered by a company whose logo was an image of a dog sitting on a coffin listening to a machine playing a recording of his dead master’s voice. At the turn of this century two robots, Spirit and Opportunity – reminiscent of Sony’s robot dog Aibo – were listening for the voices of the dead on Mars. On their website in early 2008 the Bad Seeds sat at a table in a Victorian drawing room, around an antique ouija board, and Nick, a medium in a jewelled turban, made a show of contacting the spirit world. In one session he conjured up an image of a skeleton on a sheet. In another session the table moved up into the air, seemingly of its own accord. The message the spirit world kept sending was the title of the album, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! There are many Lazaruses to bring back from the dead. The Lazarus Jesus reanimated, who staggered from his tomb looking like a character from a B-grade horror movie from the 1930s. There’s Lazarus the beggar, who lived at the gates of a rich man named Dives, who dressed luxuriously and dined on sumptuous food and never gave Lazarus so much as a chewed-clean bone from his table. Both men died. Lazarus was given a seat at Abraham’s eternal banquet table in Heaven. Dives was relegated to the fires of Hell and craved just a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue. Lazarus should be sent back to the land of the living to warn people of the consequences of living without regard for others, Dives told Abraham. The world of the living has its own prophets, Abraham replied, if they won’t listen to them why would they heed the words of a dead man? And Emma Lazarus, whose 1883 poem, graven onto a tablet on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, defined her as a beacon of hope for the dispossessed peoples of the world, holding up her torch to guide the ‘homeless’, ‘tempest-tost’, ‘wretched refuse’. Love your enemies said another man who was raised from the dead. ‘Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization’, preached Rev. Martin Luther King on this teaching of Jesus Christ. ‘Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies’.

Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’, 1883 [Online], available at http://www., accessed Jan 2008.  Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’ [Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. 17 Nov 1957], [Online], available at http:// html, accessed Jan 2008.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Tempus Non Fugit The year 2000 is a date to conjure with and hence an excuse to market the Apocalypse in an extraordinary fashion. But perhaps it can also serve, less frivolously, as an occasion to reflect on the notion of the end of time, and beyond that, on the philosophical meaning of time itself. Hasn’t the moment also come to take stock of 2000 years of Christian history and to think about what the key issues are in a society that is undergoing profound changes?

At the end of the twentieth century it was feared that the Y2K problem, the possibility that the time clocks in computers would spin themselves back to 1900, might bring on the apocalypse as the new millennium ticked over. Planes might fall from the sky. Nuclear reactors might melt down. In 1999, Jehovah’s witnesses walked the streets in my Los Angeles neighbourhood warning of the coming of an old-fashioned fireball and rapture apocalypse. The food store Trader Joes was selling a version of its earthquake supplies kit as a Y2K preparedness kit. And William Gibson read from his novel All Tomorrow’s Parties at my neighbourhood bookstore. The world will end he predicted, but we won’t notice. Life will seem to go on as usual but something fundamental, spiritually, will have changed. An old-fashioned watch remakes itself in the final chapter. French author and screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere says that watching hands moving around the dial of a clock encourages us to think about intervals of time, to place ourselves within time, to see how much has passed and how much is to come. A digital display is simply a number, with no context. ‘If all you’ve got is a little rectangle, you have to live life as a series of moments, and you lose all true measure of time’, he said. With the Grinderman album, in 2005, Nick stopped writing his songs on computer, as he’d done since the mid-1990s, and returned to writing them in notebooks and with a manual typewriter. Editing on computer had erased the traces of the routes the songs had taken as they were being brought to life. ‘The whole journey to the final creation is lost and in many ways it is this stuff that is the heart and soul of the song’, he said. ‘The great thing about a manual typewriter is that it is so time-consuming to change a line or a verse, as you have to type the whole thing over again and can’t simply “delete”, that one develops a renewed respect for the written word. The other thing is that you never really lose anything’.

 Catherine David, Frederic Lenoir and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, Conversations about the End of Time (London, 1999), p. ix.  David et al., Conversations about the End of Time, p. 139.  Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne, 2007), insert between pp. 112–13.

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A Dead Man Speaks A dead man explained the significance of Nick Cave’s music to me. Joseph Campbell died the year before his conversations with Bill Moyers became a monster hit on public television in America in 1988. ‘One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit’, he said during The Power of Myth. ‘We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour’.10 What we’d lost, he felt, was the enriching quality of mythology, our ability to see in these ancient stories what’s timeless and eternal about being human and use these insights to harmonise our own lives with our own societies in our own time. The middle of the twentieth century was a brutal period of social and technological upheaval and things were changing too fast for a guiding mythology to settle in. ‘When you come to the end of one time and the beginning of a new one, it’s a period of tremendous pain and turmoil’, said Campbell.11 He believed the horizon for mythology had expanded when we saw the photographs taken of Earth from the moon’s orbit by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968 that showed a unified world with none of the walls and boundaries between societies and nations and religions that divided people on the planet’s surface. The Long Zoom She said, ‘Father, mother, sister, brother, Uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, Soldier, sailor, physician, labourer, Actor, scientist, mechanic, priest Earth and moon and sun and stars Planets and comets with tails blazing All are there forever falling Falling lovely and amazing’12

Holding that view from space, looking back at the earth from far enough out to take in the whole planet, while at the same time seeing what’s around us, where we are on the Earth’s surface and constantly telescoping between both positions is the perspective of our age. Steven Johnson calls it ‘the long zoom’.13

Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York, 1988), p. 3. Campbell with Moyers, The Power of Myth, p. 17. 12 Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘As I Sat Sadly by Her Side’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 13 Steven Johnson, ‘The Long Zoom’, The New York Times, 8 Oct 2006 [Online], available at, accessed Oct 2006. 10 11


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

This is the perspective of Nick’s love songs of the twenty first century. ‘As I Sat Sadly By Her Side’ is a positioning device. Nick sits beside his wife, at a window, discussing a lofty, intellectual definition of compassion while his wife presents a bluntly practical view that all life is suffering, that’s just how things are, and we have to be a part of life to be compassionate. Nick could be also sitting beside another aspect of himself. Or God. Or God could be weighing up different attitudes about love. We can place ourselves beside Nick and zoom between his position and our own. The song gives planetary co-ordinates. The rhythm is a healthy heartbeat and Nick seems to be recalling the conversation while walking. Joseph Campbell was a friend of the Grateful Dead. He thought the Beatles were heroes who had brought a practical awareness of Eastern religions to a mainstream audience that was ready for these stories and insights. He never mentioned Nick but he would have recognised him as a hero in tune with the uncertainty of his time, the spiritual anxiety that people didn’t want to address or were afraid of. Nick’s song ‘Red Right Hand’ was featured on an X Files soundtrack album in 1996. Series creator Chris Carter had heard it on the radio while he was driving and pulled over to the side of the road to listen carefully to it, the ultimate compliment in Los Angeles. Heaven and hell are states we create in our minds, the song suggests. This was now the view of the Anglican church, which redefined hell during the 1990s as a void in the soul created by the absence of God. Darkness and light aren’t always easy to identify. The soft left hand extended in friendship and bestowing riches is Satan’s. The right hand, bloody from dispensing blows, is God’s. Carter felt that ‘Red Right Hand’ mirrored the psychological universe of The X Files which was balanced between the poles of dark and light, between grasping at mysticism (the existence of aliens and creatures from the realm of cryptozoology and conspiracy theories) and scientific measurement, logic and reason. ‘The show is basically a religious show. It’s about the search for God. You know, “The truth is out there!” That’s what it’s about’.14 There’s also a hidden song by Nick and Warren Ellis on the X Files soundtrack, ‘Time Jesum Transeuntum et Non Riverentum (Dread the Passage of Jesus for He Does Not Return)’. Nick’s the canary whose song warns of danger in spiritually dark times. He comes out of the darkness and back into the light but forgets the song. Nick was what Joseph Campbell would term a secondary hero, someone who keeps alive the ancient myths that have been forgotten or discarded by society. ‘This hero reinterprets the tradition and makes it valid as a living experience today instead of a lot of outdated cliches’, said Campbell.15 The deep-sea explorer Dr Robert Ballard has been inspired by Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth and has turned over his tools of telepresence to schoolchildren and those of us who follow his explorations through the National

14 Russ Spencer, ‘A Close Encounter with Chris Carter’,, 28 Apr 2000 [Online], available at, accessed Jun 2006. 15 Campbell with Moyers, The Power of Myth, p. 141.

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Geographic website, to undertake our own hero’s journey.16 His remotely-operated submersible robots have located iconic shipwrecks (the Titanic, the Bismarck, an ancient Phoenician trading ship), hydro-thermal vents teeming with life that has no access to light, and possibly, in the Black Sea, geological evidence of a flood that may have inspired the Noah’s Ark story. He was unexpectedly moved by the human tragedy in the sinking of the Titanic, the folly of an unquestioning faith in technology. Our age puts too much faith in our communications technologies. All the technology in the world won’t help us if we don’t also have curiosity, a desire to understand who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed, he says, and mythology takes us beyond the tools, reminding us of the timeless human need to communicate. Ken Goldberg’s telerobotic art installations, operated through the internet, quote from ancient myths and artworks. He’s concerned with what he’s termed ‘telepistemology’, what we know if that knowledge is gained from a distance. He encourages us to question the veracity of information we find online, wondering, with his project Dislocation of Intimacy, if all we know of the world through the internet is as limited as the shadows on the wall of the cave seen by the prisoners in Plato’s story. ‘I’m trying to facilitate the resumption of disbelief’, he told me.17 As a scientist he’s testing the reliability and ease of operation of his tools. As an artist his conceptually profound, unusually beautiful projects question the tools. He encourages us to question the tools as well: all of his projects are available for anyone to interact with over the internet. The Voigt-Kampff Compassion Test Joseph Campbell’s life spanned the publication of the Special Theory of Relativity to the introduction of the personal computer, which he described as ‘an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy’. George Lucas mined his books for the spiritual universe of the Star Wars movies, which had put ‘the newest and most powerful spin’ on the timeless journey of the hero, Campbell told Moyers. ‘It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom – the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being’.18 Punk rock, the Sony Walkman, Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (the last two both released in the early 1980s) were the foundation myths of the computer era. Blade Runner was a commercial failure in 1982 but slowly gained iconic status. It was a cautionary tale. The urban sprawl of ‘San Angeles’ stewed in a broth of acid rain. There was no natural plant or 16 Robert Ballard, ‘Interview’, Academy of, 13 Feb 1991 [Online], available at, accessed Nov 2007. 17 Ken Goldberg, Email to Jillian Burt, 26 Mar 2008. 18 Campbell with Moyers, The Power of Myth, p. xiv.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


animal life. The only citizens left on earth were those too old, ill or stubborn to have been moved ‘off world’ to a colony on Mars. As we strive to create robotic creatures with consciousness we’ll do well to remember Blade Runner’s humanoid life forms that could mimic compassion but became deadly because they had no genuine regard for human life. The analogue format sank into the sunset in a blaze of glory with the release of the Sony Walkman in 1979, which made listening to recorded music a private, contemplative, portable experience as Gutenberg’s printing press had for reading. The associations made between independent musicians across the world to share their music, ideas and interests anticipated the social networking phase of the internet. The digital world’s erasing of the boundaries between disciplines had been anticipated by the musicians of the punk rock era too; they seemed to be interested in everything under the sun: film, literature, theology, history, philosophy, science, art, architecture, urban theory, theatre, politics, mythology. The opening line of William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, drew the horizon for the computer era: ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel’.19 He coined the terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘virtual reality’ and helped create the lexicon for the era too. His characters are ultimately disappointed and destroyed by technologies which failed to make them new gods with awesome powers and uncountable riches. All any of them ever end up with is each other. His novels have increasingly developed a spiritual dimension where there are digital avatars of voodoo gods, the wholly digital Idoru may be a manifestation of ancient Japanese and Tibetan legends, and the life and martyrdom of the jailed male prostitute Shapely, whose strain of AIDS neutralised the disease in others, would be celebrated in a ritual by characters who regarded him as a Christ figure. Gibson’s strain of science fiction was termed ‘cyberpunk’. His stories took place in the kinds of destroyed and abandoned urban centres inhabited by the musicians of the punk rock era. This is the neighbourhood mapped in ‘Red Right Hand’. In one of his notebooks Nick listed a guide to this city, which has boardedup buildings, a police station, prison and city hall that are concrete fortresses, factories belching smoke and railroads and an expressway routing people around and away from this ghetto. At the time Gibson’s stories were perceived in the same way as much of the punk rock music: ungainly and violent and populated with characters who were ethically and spiritually adrift. In the twenty-first century, he abandoned the conceit of moving his novels ahead in time and inventing novel uses for computer technologies. He made it clear that his novels are reflecting our world, now, and show how we’re duped by claims made by marketers of technologies who present them to us as a form of magic. On his blog he wrote that he admired Nick’s music and would like to write a novel as good as the album The Boatman’s Call. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York, 1984), p. 3.


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The Boatman’s Call is a marker in time, separating Nick’s youthful records from the mature, twenty-first-century love songs that are evidence for a mythology for the whole planet settling into place. He writes intuitively, Nick told me, the significance of his songs only becoming apparent to him some time later.20 But listening to his albums in sequence reveals a gracefully precise mapping of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. In 1994 the Let Love In album began with Nick’s soul imploding and all that he believed in went flying into the air while church bells rang like a fire alarm. The song ‘Lay Me Low’ put his young self to rest in an elaborate funeral ritual where all of the beasts of the world gathered to mourn him. The Murder Ballads album was set in the dark Germanic wood of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and plotted his soul’s struggle through the darkness and return back into the light and, like Dante’s guides through the labyrinth, the musicians of the previous generation that Nick admired were only able to take him part of the way. Then he was on his own, cutting a new path. The album ended with an ensemble version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is Not the End’. The young person’s introspective concerns with identity and finding a place in the world gave way to an outward view, looking for a place within the community. Nick adjusts to this new outlook on The Boatman’s Call. He’d already moved beyond identifying with the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament and ‘warmed’ to the world by reading the accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark. He now rejected the concept of a mystical, puppet-master God intervening directly in the lives of humans and aligned himself with the notion of inner divinity in The Gospel of Thomas. ‘There is light within a person of light and it lights up the whole universe. If he does not shine, he is darkness’, Jesus said.21 Thomas’ Jesus discouraged hero worship and instructed his followers to look for answers to questions within themselves, since God was alive within them. Mythology can show us how to maintain a spark of humanity in any light. Nocturama, from 2003, is a humane, quiet album in which love is celebrated and thrives because of the acknowledging of human flaws, dark secrets held in our hearts, and the mistakes we’ve made. It’s set in an alarming environment, where zoos reverse night and day for nocturnal animals. An artificially-derived pale light is shone on Nick’s face on the cover. Yet, Nocturama presents emotional stilllives, everyday situations and scenarios rendered with an ordinary beauty and sweetened with the fortitude to examine the dark elements that surface during enduring relationships. The songs create and appreciate honesty, constancy and forgiveness. They promise, and deliver, unconditional love and loyalty. They catch fire in the heart, like the word of God catches fire in all of humanity on the album’s closing song.


Nick Cave, Conversation with Jillian Burt, 22 Oct 2007. Gospel of Thomas, Saying 24, tr. Thomas O. Lambdin [Online], available at http://, accessed Mar 2008. 21

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


A Man Walks into a Bar Moyers: ‘I notice when you tell these stories, Joe, you tell them with humour. You always seem to enjoy them, even when they’re about odd and cruel things’. Campbell: ‘A key difference between mythology and our Judeo-Christian religion is that the imagery of mythology is rendered with humour. You realize that the image is symbolic of something. You’re at a distance from it. But in our religion, everything is prosaic, and very, very serious’.22

The Let Love In album was recorded at a fiercely unsettled time for Nick, but it was possible to see, too, the steadying, load-lightening effect an awareness of mythology had on him. ‘Thirsty Dog’ has Nick sitting in a bar telling his side of a rancorous argument that brings a relationship to an explosive close. Look at it straight-on and it’s harrowing and bitter. Look at it sideways and it’s a New Yorker cartoon. The moon symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Nick’s indicating a spiritual wasteland the moon is in the gutter, has been taken down, trampled on, refuses to shine. The goddess of the moon is Artemis/Diana, who set her dogs on a man who watched her bathing. The goddess of Nick’s fallen moon would be an ornery creature and I could imagine Nick sitting at her bar as she poured him half-empty glasses of liquor, while Leo Callum’s merciless cartoon canines in business suits glower at him from the other end of the bar, drinking scotch and toilet water. ‘It’s not enough that we succeed’, one of them might say, ‘cats must also fail’.23 I held a New Yorker cartoon as my symbol of ideal happiness when I watched The Power of Myth on television in New York in 1988. I’d miraculously hoped that knowledge of mythology would place me with the Addams Family serenely grouped around a picture window while a blizzard raged outside. ‘Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive’, purred Morticia. I knew the sadness and gloom were metaphorical, that Charles Addams had drawn lightness, happiness and warmth by outlining their opposites. Here was familial bliss. They loved music, art, and each other. They valued tradition but were hip. They had sound recorders, a multi-armed hi-fi, and a film projector. They were accepting of flaws and strangeness and embraced humans and creatures others would have shunned. I pasted Charles Addams’s cartoons into my notebook, alongside quotations from books about mythology I’d borrowed from the branch of the New York Public Library across the road from the Museum of Modern Art. But it was only seven years later that I understood, by Nick’s example, what it meant to make the leap from reading about life to living it.

Campbell with Moyers, The Power of Myth, p. 220. Leo Callum, Cartoon, The New Yorker, 13 Jan 1997 [Online], available at http://, accessed Jan 2008. 22 23

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I’d begun in journalism as a music writer in Australia when Nick was starting his musical career. I’d often written stories about his records and performances but I came to realise that I had only a shallow grasp of what was going on. I thought I was hearing cleverly quoted stories. The darkly funny dimension of ‘Thirsty Dog’ was a revelation that hit me like a sucker-punch. This was an example of someone finding the courage to face the unbearable. In considering Nick’s music as poetry and not prose, I started to recognise allegories elsewhere. The courage to face the irrational savage beast within us all, as the Indian boy Pi did when he found himself in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And the courage to consider what’s in someone’s heart and not judge them by the colour of their plumage, as Bruce Eric Kaplan did in a New Yorker cartoon where a blackbird says to a dove: ‘I can’t believe you symbolise peace when you’re such a bitch’.24 In music journalism it’s rare to be able to move from the general to the particular and show the power of music to move people. Nick’s music bears witness to the suffering that underpins life and the transcendence and joy that comes through facing sadness. But there’s no certain reward: life isn’t fair and good people may suffer. In March of last year, The New York Times reported that an auxiliary police officer (an unarmed, volunteer patroller), who was also a bookseller and was writing a noir novel, was ‘killed with his partner in the line of duty by an aspiring and apparently delusional horror film director who had just murdered a bartender at an Italian restaurant’. Nick’s song ‘Abattoir Blues’ was played at the funeral.25 The Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) albums wondered about the power music has to move people. Is beautiful music a gift from the gods, held within the lyre of Orpheus, whose music moved inanimate objects, soothed savage beasts, and charmed the gatekeeper to the underworld? Or is it a pact struck with the devil on a deserted crossroads on a moonless night? The language of these albums is gospel, the music of the downtrodden who tell their pitiful stories but lift their voices and hearts to the heavens. The epigraph to Nick’s books of lyrics is ‘And I only am escaped alone to tell thee’, the words of one of Job’s servants.26 Satan goaded God into testing the faith of the innocent Job by killing his family and servants, destroying his lands and disfiguring his body with sores. You can make me fear you, Job told God, but why not inspire me to love you? God fell silent and later embedded himself into the human race through Jesus Christ, and suffered with them. Compassion is the bedrock of Nick’s love songs.

Bruce Eric Kaplan, Cartoon, The New Yorker, 17 Apr 2006 [Online], available at http;//, accessed Nov 2007. 25 Andy Newman, ‘A Slain Officer’s Mother Tells of Her Sad Intuition’, The New York Times, 17 Mar 2007 [Online], available at, accessed 17 Mar 2007. 26 Job 1.17. 24

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Nick’s music isn’t a product. It isn’t sold-on for advertisements. The more that he recedes as a spokesman for his own work, the more his songs take on independent lives of their own. They’re recorded by other artists, used in movies, underpin dance and theatre performances and are mentioned in books. The sum of all these lives is the true measure of his songs. A Blueprint to Remake the World At the end of his sets of Bad Seeds classics on Nick’s 2007 Australian tour, the Grinderman song ‘Go Tell the Women’ had the authority of a funked-up folk song. It had transcended its author to speak for all people. It spoke, especially, to us in Australia at that moment in time. It is a portrait of us as clever people, up on our hind legs and highly evolved. We are scientists, mathematicians, artists. We hold powerful positions. We are inventive enough to genetically alter our plants and animals. But we’d lost our spirit and we’d walk away from problems. We were tired and had nothing to believe in. A federal election was called during Grinderman’s Australian tour. The country reversed course and put a renewed faith in symbolic gestures. Joseph Campbell said the test that proves the power of a mythologically aware artwork is that if the world were to blow to pieces it could be put back together with what that work contained. The work that was a blueprint for his age was James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegan’s Wake. He compiled a skeleton key for the novel, showing that it wasn’t fancifully incomprehensible but had a single coherent message, a quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, suggesting that God had consigned humankind to disobedience so that He might show His mercy to all.27 If the world blew apart and were put back together with guidance from the Grinderman album, our sins would be usurping God, creating and destroying at will and not recognising the consequences of our actions. If we are now God, can we forgive our own sins? In returning to the blazing rock and roll sound of his youth with Grinderman, but with wise, mature lyrics, Nick has struck a nerve. We have no means of appreciating rock and roll musicians as gracefully aging sages with a humble attitude to the responsibilities of being a useful part of a family and the community. Rock and roll is in a state of arrested adolescence. Critics praised the fact that Nick, nearly fifty, could still rock like a teenager, but entirely missed the stinging appraisal of our contemporary world in the lyrics, that could only have come from a half century of caring and being troubled about the state of the world.


Romans 11.32.

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Beauty Will Save the World I was just a boy when I sat down to watch the news on TV I saw some ordinary slaughter, I saw some routine atrocity, My father said don’t look away, you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be bold now, In the end it’s only beauty that will save the world now.28

I’ve been trying to write into existence the natural habitat of Nick’s songs, the equivalent of a diorama. Steve Quinn from the American Museum of Natural History in New York believes that dioramas are popular because, ‘they evoke the same emotional response to viewing wildlife in nature. That same epiphany that occurs when one experiences beauty and wonder in the natural world’.29 Now that Nick has donated notebooks he’s written lyrics into, manuscripts of his essays, books from his library (classic works of literature, dictionaries, field guides to animals and plants, compendiums of traditional songs), artworks from his collection and family photographs to the Performing Arts Collection of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne, anyone can imaginatively project themselves into this habitat. An exhibition of these objects re-creates his ‘office’. It could be a time-shifted study of a Victorian naturalist. We see his respect for the craft of writing and how he perseveres and what a patient endeavour writing is for him. We see that the result of a deeply held understanding of mythology is joyfulness in his everyday life. One late spring / early summer morning I woke up in the flat I lived in, in Chelsea, with my now-wife Susie, and I looked up at the enormous skylight over the living room and saw that, yet again, it was grey skies and rain, And I remember standing there screaming at it, something along the lines of, ‘What have I done to deserve this!’ and Susie asking me what I was doing and me explaining that as an Australian I was used to a certain amount of acceptable weather, and where the hell was the so-called ‘spring’ and are we actually going to get any summer? etc. etc. Later that day I bought a lovely up-market notebook and a new rubber date stamp and began to note down the fluctuations in the weather. This weather diary began to become increasingly important, and as any weatherman will tell you, ‘bad’ weather is so much more interesting than ‘good’ weather, so that soon I was leaping out of bed, looking up at the skylight, and crying … ‘O groovy! Darling! Rain!’30

28 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Nature Boy’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2005). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 29 American Museum of Natural History [Online], available at, accessed Jan 2008. 30 Barrand and Fox, Nick Cave Stories, insert between pp. 33–4.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Nick’s songs are something I measure the world against. They provide a still, sure point in a shifting world. I grew up in rural Australia reading whatever I could find. Newspapers, agricultural equipment and veterinary supplies catalogues, and out-of-date encyclopaedias in the public library of a small town that had taxidermy birds in glass cages that were leaking sawdust. The only music I ever heard came late at night, like messages from the spirit world, bounced around the globe from what seemed to be a New York jazz radio station. I had a self-propelled interest in science and ethics that has led me to writing mostly on robotics and technology, and the guiding principles of Buddhism and the Hindu epics. But as a fledgling journalist, interviews with Nick and the other musicians in The Birthday Party opened up whole worlds of religious art, philosophy and classical literature to me. In the months before he died, while drinking beer out of a teacup, Tracy Pew described the world and society of Jane Austen’s novels to me, and unlocked their sly humour. I found a point of connection with Rowland S. Howard’s interest in classic science fiction. And lately Mick Harvey’s albums, with their intelligent admiration of other musicians and songwriters, has guided me in listening to music more carefully and appreciatively. From Nick’s ability to quote sections of poems casually in conversation, as if he were remembering the words of a friend, I learned the patience and open-heartedness to read poetry. As Metaphors Collapse I think where we need to look now is to the same source that the people of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did when their civilisation was foundering: to the poets and artists. These people can look past the broken symbols of the present and begin to forge new working images, images that are transparent to transcendence.31

When I bought Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! after it had been released, the effect of the whole package – the cover artwork and printed lyrics as well as the music – was shocking. Driving around on a sunny day, simply listening, I’d been lulled by the limpid, vaguely-Eastern honeyed groove of the music. The lyrics sounded equally rich and eloquently composed. The whole sound was a softness I wanted to stay with. Like Odysseus’s crew, who were intoxicated by the hedonistic lifestyle of the Lotus Eaters and lost the will to return home, I hadn’t looked beneath the surface of the beauty. Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! reveals that in our world actions aren’t tethered to consequences. We may wish to push the blame upstairs to God, but surely we’ve written this ugly scenario for ourselves.

31 Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (Novato, 2004), p. 20.

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o rampant discrimination / mass poverty / third world debt / infectious disease / global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions – (it does in your brain!!!)32

The symbols within these new songs are ancient, evocative and exceedingly glorious and we can’t bring them to life in our time. Metaphors have lost their power to move us because nothing seems real or unreal enough anymore to provide contrast. Scheherazade told 1,001 stories in order to stay alive, but in ‘Hold on to Yourself’ the protagonists of 1,001 nights’ worth of stories have already had the life drained from them. They’re zombies, phantoms, ghosts and fairy girls. The album culminates in the underworld passageways of the lair of the Cyclops, a land beyond the living. It seems exactly like our everyday world where the Catholic Church has become hip to social networking and redefined sin as a collective activity, real people have assumed a mythical unreality from being passed through a tabloid filter, and a woman identifying with a doomed species by replacing her blood with a panda’s and tripping out on its narcotic leaf diet, seems utterly reasonable. Nick is Odysseus, blinding the Cyclops with his pen. When the Cyclops demands to know who’s done this to him, Nick, as Odysseus did before him, replies ‘nobody’. In the exhibition of artefacts from Nick’s office there had been a handsomely bound notebook with a black cover into which he’d hand-written the lyrics to Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! Before the album was released it sat closed in its glass case. It was chilling to eventually see the lyric booklet that came with the album, printed in a functionally plain typeface, with contractions of words, dropped punctuation, lurching line-spacing and urgent exclamations. So much care, thought and polishing, with a pen in hand on paper, had been applied to make it appear as if the lyrics had been punched out in an unthinking burst with a thumb on the keypad of a mobile phone. The rough imprecision on the page seemed to drain the beauty from the words. And perhaps the spirit, too. The English artists Zatorski + Zatorski translated the King James edition of the Bible into text message language, and their hOLy bIbL. ex 15; 20 installation of the translated Ten Commandments, reduced them to incoherent slogans. Ours is an age of conversation and communication, much of it written in e-mails and text messages, but these artworks illustrate that the language we write with onscreen destroys the beauty and charm of what we write, and that we’ve lost the individuality expressed by handwritten letters. The cover for Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! is a photograph of a light-bulb sculpture of the album’s title by Sue Webster and Tim Noble that flashes in overheated reds and yellows, reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino billboard or the sign for a drivein evangelical church. By chance at the public lending library at Customs House 32 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘We Call upon the Author to Explain’, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! CD (Mute Records, 2008). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

in Circular Quay I found a story by Federico Garcia Lorca set in the St Lazarus Railway Station, whose sign was made with electric light bulbs. The cover for the single, ‘Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!’ is an electronic schematic diagram in black and white. From a distance it appears to be a latticework of blown bulbs, or unplugged from its source of power. In a guide to industrial design materials and techniques for the twenty-first century, Raymond Guidot and Jean Jacques Salomon write that the electronic and disposable objects of our age will never become archaeological finds that ‘reveal a particular stage in the eternal strivings of human history’ and will leave no ‘identifiable trace of civilization or culture’. Ancient cities left ruins that successive generations incorporated and built upon. Our generation leaves junk. ‘In the cemeteries of waste, the disposable eclipses beauty. It’s quite a different relationship to time: reuse preserved memory; re-cycling dissolves it’. The songs on Nick’s albums cohere, conceptually and spiritually, into something solid and profound in a throwaway world. This essay emerged from the notes I made into prototypes of notebooks I was developing for my bookbinding business, but each time I felt that I had an essentially ‘finished’ version, and put aside my notes, I’d hear Nick’s songs differently, elsewhere, see the symbols in stories in the news, in artworks, find them reverberating through books I’d read, and I’d open another notebook to capture these fresh insights, and begin another draft. In the 1990s I was sidetracked by the computer’s efficiency, as Nick had been, and was on a fruitless quest to build the perfect electronic notebook with components from the hardware store where I bought my bookbinding supplies. A couple of years ago I retired those schemes and returned to paper books, this time made from bamboo and an ingenious, environmentally sound polymer, using no glue and a fine and strong spine construct inspired by the Golden Gate Bridge. At around the time the Murder Ballads album was released I made a notebook for Nick as a gift. I asked him to specify the dimensions he’d like. He didn’t have a ruler in his office and he used CD covers and cassette cases to measure an elongated, narrow self-published book on a religious theme that an admirer had sent him. Nick reaching for music to measure with is what springs to mind when I wonder what compels him to write his songs.

The Light Within


Bibliography American Museum of Natural History [Online], available at http://www.amnh. org, accessed Jan 2008. Ballard, Robert D., ‘Interview’, Academy of, 13 Feb 1991 [Online], available at, accessed Nov 2007. ——, Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep Sea Exploration (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). Barrand, Janine, and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Callum, Leo, Cartoon, The New Yorker, 13 Jan 1997 [Online], available at http://, accessed Jan 2008. Campbell, Joseph, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2004). ——, with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988). Cave, Nick, Conversation with Jillian Burt, 22 October 2007. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). ——, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2005). ——, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! CD (Mute Records, 2008). David, Catherine, Frederic Lenoir and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, Conversations about the End of Time (London: Allen Lane, 1999). Gibson, William, Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984). Goldberg, Ken, Email to Jillian Burt, 26 Mar 2008. Gospel of Thomas, Saying 24, tr. Thomas O. Lambdin [Online], available at http://, accessed Mar 2008. Johnson, Steven, ‘The Long Zoom’, The New York Times, 8 Oct 2006 [Online], available at, accessed Oct 2006. Kaplan, Bruce Eric, Cartoon, The New Yorker, 17 Apr 2006 [Online], available at, accessed Nov 2007. King, Martin Luther, Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’ [Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. 17 November 1957] [Online], available at sermons/571117.002_Loving_Your_Enemies.html, accessed Jan 2008. Lazarus, Emma, ‘The New Colossus’, 1883 [Online], available at http://www., accessed Jan 2008. Newman, Andy, ‘A Slain Officer’s Mother Tells of Her Sad Intuition’, The New York Times, 17 Mar 2007 [Online], available at http://www.newyorktimes. com, accessed 17 Mar 2007. Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003). Spencer, Russ, ‘A Close Encounter with Chris Carter’,, 28 Apr 2000 [Online], available at, accessed Jun 2006. Yeats, W.B., The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (London: Papermac, 1982).

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Chapter 2

Planting Seeds Clinton Walker

I first met Nick Cave in Melbourne in early 1978 when we were both, daresay, players in a new music underground that was still so small that everyone knew each other. Cave was fronting The Boys Next Door, his high school band going semi-pro, and he was even then a shining star; I was a budding music writer fresh down from Brisbane, who, like The Boys Next Door and the other maybe seventy or so people who went to see them every Tuesday night at the Tiger Lounge that winter, had been inspired into action, or at least goaded on, galvanised, by the punk rock explosion of 1977. The mid-to-late 1970s was a turning point for rock music and all popular culture. Cave himself has often referred, only half-jokingly, to ‘when we fought the big one in 1976 or ’77’. For a generation like Cave and myself born in 1957, or at least tiny isolated pockets of us all round the (pre-internet) world, there was something new in the air we were picking up on. Punk rock as it came to be broadly identified at that time was largely thanks to the short, incendiary career of the Sex Pistols. Punk as a genre was the enema superstar rock had to have as it became ever more bloated and irrelevant in 1975/76. The buzzsaw call-to-arms first heard in late 1976, in the Ramones’ debut album and the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’, and the first single by Brisbane band the Saints, ‘Stranded’, was a necessary part of that process. But beyond that, the post-punk period (1978–c.1984) was perhaps even more fertile, because after punk wiped the slate clean, it was as if everything opened out again: we had gone through ground-zero and now felt free to re-start again. This was a lot of the feeling in that small scene in Melbourne in 1978 – Anything Goes. For me, it was an exhilarating time. Personal nostalgia aside, it was an extraordinary time. It was quite enough just to be part of a groundswell, because it seemed very real and very strong. Even if more broadly it only seemed to incite fear and loathing, that, of course, was a large part of the cult appeal anyway (Us against Them). For those of us of this Blank Generation, to use Richard Hell’s phrase, the period was a rite of passage that ironically created our future even as we joined in the Sex Pistols’ chorus, ‘No future’, and we were all shaped, to differing degrees, by our common experience.  Nick Cave, in Stranger in a Strange Land, dir. Bram van Splunteren, TV documentary (Dutch VPRO TV, 1987).


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

For Nick Cave, the period was doubly dynamic, formative, because it was around this same time – late 1978 – that his father died. Cave has remembered how it all set a tack for him: ‘The things I love, the things I hate, the things that really affect me – I felt those things forming, right down to the type of music and literature I liked. I don’t feel that they’ve progressed particularly since that time, and that was pretty much the time my father died, and I think that’s not coincidental’. With this article, I want to go back to that time and place – go back, so to speak, to the Crystal Ballroom, the Melbourne venue that gave Nick Cave his first great stage, in 1979 – in order to try and recall just what it was in the air that so fired us all up. Because for all the serious discussion that Nick Cave inspires these days, what tends to get a little overlooked, I reckon, is music itself, especially the music that inspired him to take up music in the first place, and even for all Cave’s quite reasonable claims on Renaissance Man status, he remains, first and foremost, a musician, a singer and a songwriter. That he spent most of 2007 working on the side-project Grinderman, strapping on an electric guitar for the first time in his career and just rocking out, is an indication of the primacy of music to him: this was Nick just having fun. But like Bob Dylan, it’s his lyrics and literary position that have drawn the overwhelming proportion of comment. Yet as Dylan said in his 2005 memoir Chronicles, ‘Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians’. I want to go back to the Crystal Ballroom to recover the songs and bands that I too remember from all those parties and gigs and lazy afternoons so long ago; the music we all came to love and hate together; the values that have underlined the best of what we’ve all done since then. Internationally, Nick Cave seems to have been born in 1980, when he arrived in London with The Birthday Party, the band The Boys Next Door became after guitarist Rowland Howard joined and they left Melbourne. Even the most well-informed of rock scholars in other parts of the world has an incomplete understanding of Australian music and its history. This would be reason enough, I would have thought, for anyone to want to delve into those early years in Australia, but all the more for me given that I was there and have a certain amount of insider knowledge. Obviously Melbourne in the late 1970s was a crossroads for many of us. I had come from somewhere similar to Nick Cave (was an art school drop-out who’d been born in the same part of rural Victoria), and I would end-up, in one respect, unfortunately, in a similar place (taking hard drugs for too long). I’m not sure  Nick Cave, qtd. in Lindsay Baker, ‘Feelings are a Bourgeois Luxury …’, Guardian Unlimited, 1 Feb 2003 [Online], available at story/0,885692,00.html, accessed 1 Feb 2003.  Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York, 2005), p. 119.

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if like me Cave was pushed towards figurative expressionism at art school as a reaction against the prevailing self-indulgence and elitism of conceptual art, but I know other people from the punk wars who were. Much of this piece is obviously drawn from direct personal experience. In my vocation I have produced a number of CD anthologies, and in a way maybe I always saw this article as something like the liner notes for a hypothetical soundtrack album of Nick Cave’s formative pre-history. It’s true, there have been, in 1998 and 2004, two CD volumes of Original Seeds, ‘Songs that inspired Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’, and Cave himself has performed many cover versions throughout his career and released an album of them, Kicking Against the Pricks, in 1985. But this is about before The Bad Seeds: from Concrete Vulture to The Boys Next Door to The Birthday Party. It is a musical biography of the artist-as-gormless-adolescent. The tracklisting for that hypothetical double-album, then, follows, should any readers wish to load it into their iPod: SIDE ONE ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ – Ramones (1976) ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – Sex Pistols (1976) ‘Stranded’ – Saints (1976) ‘TV Eye’ – Radio Birdman (1977) ‘Louie Louie’ – Iggy and the Stooges (1977) ‘Gloria’ – Patti Smith (1976) ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’’ – Nancy Sinatra (1966) ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – Velvet Underground (1966) SIDE TWO ‘I’m Eighteen’ – Alice Cooper (1971) ‘Next’ – Sensational Alex Harvey Band (1973) ‘Andy Warhol’ – David Bowie (1971) ‘Berlin’ – Lou Reed (1973) ‘Personality Crisis’ – New York Dolls (1973) ‘The Model’ – Kraftwerk (1978) ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’ – Roxy Music (1972) SIDE THREE ‘Shivers’ – Young Charlatans (1978) ‘Curiosity’ – Crime and the City Solution (1977) ‘Do that Dance’ – Primitive Calculators (1979) ‘Shot by Both Sides’ – Magazine (1978) ‘Frankie Teardrop’ – Suicide (1978) ‘I Need Two Heads’ – GoBetweens (1980) ‘I Want to Scream’ – Laughing Clowns (1980) ‘Rooms for the Memory’ – Whirlywirld (1979)


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

SIDE FOUR ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ – Pere Ubu (1978) ‘No Birds Do Sing’ – Public Image Limited (1979) ‘(She is) Beyond Good and Evil’ – Pop Group (1979) ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ – Captain Beefheart (1971) ‘Sad Dark Eyes’ – Loved Ones (1966) ‘Loose’ – Stooges (1971) ‘Mystery Plane’ – Cramps (1980) At the start of 1978, when I first saw The Boys Next Door, they had been playing publicly for barely six months, and they were as likely a prospect as the Australian new wave was going to throw up, could have been and in many ways were the next cab off the rank after the Saints and Radio Birdman, Australia’s twin prophets of punk. When I first saw them – at Preston Institute on February 24, as the astonishingly deep fansite archives on the internet now tell me – the thing that was immediately refreshing about them was that they sounded nothing like the Ramones/Sex Pistols axis whose influence had quickly become pervasive and stultifying. Nor even, closer to home, did they echo the Saints or Birdman, both of whom had had a profound impact on them. In a way, they reminded me of the GoBetweens, whose first-ever performance I’d seen in Brisbane just weeks before. Fey boys touting acoustic guitars and the influence of Bob Dylan and the Monkees hardly fitted the rapidly coagulating punk stereotype, but that’s precisely why the GoBetweens impressed me: an antiorthodox DIY adventurousness. The Boys Next Door were similarly individualistic, a sort of glam-punk, power-pop garage band who, if anything, were reminiscent of Roxy Music – which was fine by me, because like the Boys and so many other footsoldiers in the Big One, I was an old glam rocker from way back, and I felt a sense of unfinished business about the experimentalism of bands like Roxy. The Boys themselves often asserted that it was because they had deeper roots in glam rock, which in so many ways were the roots of punk, that they weren’t blinded by punk when it came along as such in 1977. They didn’t have to do an about-face, as many struggling ‘old wave’ bands did; they were merely vindicated to press on even harder. ‘We didn’t know what we were’, Mick Harvey told me in the early 1990s, ‘we’d been doing this stuff which was the precursor to punk, to some degree, so when punk came along, we thought, Oh, that’s what we must be, but of course it wasn’t. We twisted what we were doing a bit’. When I first saw them, the Boys’ first single, a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s 1960s hit ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’’, had just been released. ‘Boots’ might have seemed a bubblegum/novelty song at the time, but the trash aesthetic was always  Mick Harvey, in Clinton Walker, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music (Sydney, 1996), p. 42.

Planting Seeds


part of punk’s programme too. Yet even as the band hurried to outgrow what they doubtless saw then as the embarrassing infantilism of this and some of their other early covers (they were already phasing ‘Boots’ out of their set), many of those influences would eventually come back to haunt Nick Cave – in a good way. Musically, the early teenage Nick Cave grew up in the shadow of his oldest brother Tim, whose taste ran, basically, to progressive rock, the high hippie form of the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, et al. Glam rock was in one way a younger generation – tail-end baby boomers – thumbing its nose at its metaphorical older brother. When the young Nick found some things for himself like Marc Bolan and T. Rex, or Alice Cooper or the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, it was disdained as upstart trash by all the Big Brothers of the world. But it egged us all on and it formed a basis, in 1974, for the Caulfield Grammar garage band in which Cave, Mick Harvey (who remains Cave’s Sancho Panza to this day) and drummer Phill Calvert first came together. Nick has remembered that when the band, known at one stage as Concrete Vulture, practised and played school dances occasionally during 1974/75, its repertoire consisted mainly of Alex Harvey covers with a few Alice Cooper numbers thrown in as well. Scotsman Alex Harvey and the American Alice Cooper were both extremely theatrical and narrative-based, and can be categorised as both glam and shock rock. Glam ran from Bolan and Bowie to Slade and the Sweet, even Australia’s own Skyhooks; the shock part added to glam’s sexual ambiguity an aspect of camp/Gothic horror, going all the way back to Screaming Jay Hawkins and up to Black Sabbath. Clearly all this has fed into Nick Cave as we know him now. If it wasn’t Alex Harvey who introduced Euro cabaret to Cave – the title-track of Harvey’s second album was a version of Jacques Brel’s ‘Next’ – it was the Doors, who covered Brecht and Weil’s ‘Alabama Song’, and who we all listened to. Concrete Vulture fizzled out after the boys left school. But during 1976, with Cave now at art college and the first stirrings of punk rumbling on the horizons, Cave, Harvey and Calvert came back together, now with bassist Tracy Pew, another old cohort from Caulfield Grammar: this was the quartet that would become The Boys Next Door. Pew had been learning the rudiments of his instrument from his best mate in suburban Mount Waverley, Chris Walsh, who would have a profound impact. Walsh was the kid who played Cave and the band the records that really anticipated punk. ‘We’d get to hear all this stuff at his house’, Mick Harvey told me. It has to be explained that this was a time long before unlimited access. There was a strict hierarchy of taste in mid-1970s rock and it palpably excluded, ironically, the three acts who would ultimately change everything: the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the New York Dolls – the three pillars of pre-punk. Beyond Bowie Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1995), p. 21. Amy Hanson, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London, 2005), p. 2.  Mick Harvey, in Walker, Stranded, p. 41.  

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


and Lou Reed though, these records, at the time, were hard to come by. If you were quick you could get copies from the Australian Record Club of the two New York Dolls albums and Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 third and last album Raw Power. Picking up on these sorts of records certainly changed my life, as it also did the young Ramones and the Saints and Radio Birdman and Chris Walsh and the nascent Boys Next Door and the Sex Pistols and the Clash and everybody else. They opened a door. Punk was a reaction against all the Big Brother hippy orthodoxies of the 1960s that in the mid-1970s still dominated the charts. Peace and love had failed. This was the antithesis of all that. Nick Cave has said that Raw Power changed his life after he bought a copy because he liked the cover, but it seems more likely that Chris Walsh played it to him. The necessary aesthetic imperative was back to basics; from the bloated rock opera to the short, sharp attack; from long hair and beards and flares to razor cuts and stovepipes and winklepickers. We all hated Supertramp and Fleetwood Mac and Rod Stewart and Rick Wakeman and the Stones and all the boring old farts. Import copies of the Ramones’ first album started trickling in to Australia in mid-1976, after Patti Smith’s debut Horses had arrived earlier in the year. Chris Walsh played The Ramones to the still-unnamed The Boys Next Door. Cave, like all of us, knew the Big One was beginning. The Ramones, who had emerged out of the same lower Manhattan bar as Patti Smith, CBGBs, reduced rock to its elemental minimalism and gave punk its buzzsaw blueprint. In quick succession, by October, Brit-punk had hit wax for the first time, in the form of the Damned’s debut single on Stiff Records, ‘New Rose’, and in Australia, the Saints had self-pressed (as we used to say back then) a debut single, ‘Stranded’, and Radio Birdman advertised via mail-order a debut EP, called Burn My Eye. In November, the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ came out. It was even released by EMI in Australia. I bought a copy from Woolworths before it was withdrawn from sale when EMI dropped the band. For me though, the Saints, who I met in high school, had already turned my head; when ‘Stranded’ started the fire it did, I dropped out of Brisbane Art College and started writing about this new music movement. A vast bum rush, the Big One took place in 1977. Violent, nihilistic punk rock became the year’s international moral panic of choice. At a time of deepening recession and dominant disco music, it was a cultural search and destroy kamikaze mission. The Sex Pistols would barely survive into 1978, but their reverberations are still sounding. For The Boys Next Door (now having taken that name), the real or strongest inspiration, however, was less a crackling signal on vinyl than ones much closer to home – seeing live in Melbourne, first, Radio Birdman, and then, much more importantly, the Saints. This was living, breathing confirmation of what was possible, even out of little old Australia’s supposed backwater. Nick Cave was a conspicuous headbanger down the front at Radio Birdman’s first Melbourne gigs Nick Cave, in Stranger in a Strange Land.

Planting Seeds


in March 1977. But compared to the almost militaristic Birdman, the Saints were a truly mercurial force, and as soon as Cave saw them barely a couple of weeks later, as he has said himself on numerous occasions, his life was changed. He walked away a different person. Three months after this, The Boys Next Door played their debut. Assisted by then-‘manager’, Chris Walsh, they played consecutive weekends in early August with the Reals, the band Walsh had formed together with Ollie Olsen and Garry Grey. The first gig was in Mick Harvey’s Anglican minister father’s church hall in Ashburton, and the second, organised by 3SW DJ Bruce Milne, was a ‘Cheap Thrills New Wave Rock Show’ at Swinburne Tech, with a third band on the bottom of bill, the Obsessions, led by Rowland Howard. As evidenced by a surviving cassette tape recording, The Boys Next Door at Swinburne were unremarkable, musically. Their set was weighted 60/40 in favour of covers: a couple of Ramones songs, which are as easy to play as the few garage band standards they also performed, like ‘Gloria’ and ‘Louie Louie’; there was a version of Alice Cooper’s classic ‘I’m Eighteen’, which doubtless hung over from Concrete Vulture; and there was ‘Boots’ and another relative novelty song, ’50s R&B hit ‘I Put a Spell on You’. None of the five originals were terribly distinguished. But there was something about the band even then. The charisma of its front man must have had something to do with it. New York new wave band Blondie had scored a surprise hit in Australia, largely thanks to Countdown, Molly Meldrum’s weekly ABC pop programme, and when they toured in December 1977, they saw The Boys Next Door and ran off and told Molly to put them on his show. Molly didn’t want to know. He was typical of the baby boomers who ran the Australian music industry and felt only threatened by so-called punk rock. There was one music industry veteran-outsider, however, Keith Glass, who saw something in The Boys Next Door, and he gave them their first ‘legitimate’ pub gig, supporting his own Keith Glass Band (or KGB), at the Tiger Lounge. Things moved quickly after that. Everything happens quickly when you’re 20, even if it seems like an eternity at the time. After barely half a dozen professional engagements in 1977, The Boys Next Door played a hundred gigs in ’78. The Sex Pistols barely played so many in their entire career. The old-school Australian pub circuit, at its peak in the late ’70s/early ’80s, was fabled for breeding tough bands, from AC/DC to Rose Tattoo and Midnight Oil, and there’s no doubt that Nick Cave also benefited from this demanding apprenticeship. The Reals and the Obsessions quickly dissolved. Chris Walsh and Garry Grey carried on as the Negatives. Ollie Olsen and Rowland Howard got together with my flatmate Jeffrey Wegener, who’d drummed briefly with the Saints in Brisbane, to form a band called the Young Charlatans, who would have an enormous influence throughout the new Melbourne music underground.  Nick Cave, in Long Way to the Top, dir. Greg Appel, TV documentary (Australian ABC TV, 2001).


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

The Boys Next Door’s shifting range of covers tells a story in itself. By the winter of 1978, when they were in the studio recording a debut album and could play two sets a night as they did every Tuesday at the Tiger Lounge, they only had to pad it out with two or three, maybe four new covers. And those were a long way from Ramones songs. I vividly remember the band playing ‘Andy Warhol’, by David Bowie, and Lou Reed’s ‘Caroline Says’. They also occasionally used to do Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’ (from his 1977 comeback solo debut The Idiot), and the New York Dolls’ ‘Personality Crisis’. These sort of songs were a barefaced confession of where they were coming from. There was an explosion of new young bands at the time and most of them were doing nothing but recycling Ramones and Sex Pistols riffs. The Boys Next Door were already drawing from a deeper well, which was what allowed them the greater scope. Brit-punk, by 1978, was already approaching the dour Doc Martens-andMohawks stereotype, and certainly in Melbourne at the time, what I remember hearing a lot of was not the Clash or Buzzcocks or Stiff Little Fingers or Sham 69 or any of that. What I did hear a lot of – what was in the air – was the Berlin Quartet, as I like to call the four albums released in 1977 by Bowie and Iggy, the former’s Low and ‘Heroes’ and the latter’s The Idiot and Lust for Life (all of which were recorded in Berlin). This, like the New York acts like Television, Richard Hell, even the early Talking Heads (art school graduates), pointed towards a more promising post-punk direction. Eno. The Saints’ third and last album of 1978, Prehistoric Sounds. Early singles by Magazine and Devo. ‘Oddities’ like Leonard Cohen’s Phil Spector-produced 1977 album Death of a Ladies Man, and Captain Beefheart’s 1978 comeback album Shiny Beast. Kraftwerk! – Trans-Europe Express and the brand new Man-Machine. There was even more Germania: people were going to see films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Kings of the Road. But again, first-hand experience cut deepest. Peers and rivals the Young Charlatans put the biggest frighteners on The Boys Next Door. Like the GoBetweens in Brisbane, the Charlatans were precociously well-developed at a very early stage, and The Boys Next Door, who might have been the ultimate late bloomers, learnt much from them. The Charlatans per se peaked too early. They broke up in May 1978 after only 13 gigs. Their last was co-headlining with The Boys Next Door a benefit for Pulp, the fanzine that Bruce Milne and I could no longer afford to keep putting out. (I went on as a sort of enfant terrible of the mainstream music press; Bruce worked with Keith Glass on his Missing Link label, and on his own Au-Go-Go label.) The Charlatans’ impact was felt far beyond that, for The Boys Next Door not least of all in the fact that guitarist Rowland Howard moved on to join them, to share songwriting duties with Nick Cave. Howard gave The Boys Next Door an immediate leg-up. His song ‘Shivers’, which was a staple in the Young Charlatans’ set, would become their second single, and he and Cave would spur each other on greatly. Supporting bands like Australian Crawl or Icehouse or Cold Chisel at the suburban beer barns where pub rock ruled, The Boys Next Door were booed and

Planting Seeds


bottled. But at the Crystal Ballroom, Melbourne’s new Mecca for new music, a faded old hotel in sleazy St Kilda, they were like lords of the new church. Although, at that precise point in time, going in to 1979, not long after Cave’s father Colin had been killed in a car accident, they probably weren’t the best band on the scene. It was a time when every week seemed to bring a new record from overseas that was unlike anything you’d ever heard before, or another gig that topped the previous best gig any of us had ever seen, the week before. With songwriting split virtually 50/50 between Cave and Rowland Howard, The Boys Next Door certainly had no room left for any covers. Although, by any other name … Yet while it is probably true that at the time Cave and Howard were just trying to better each other’s imitations of their mutual latest favourite record from England or America, whether Pere Ubu, Public Image Limited (Johnny Rotten’s post-Pistols band) or the Pop Group, at the same time, again, it was their very immediate peers and rivals who pushed them hardest: Whirlywirld (Ollie Olsen’s new all-electronic band), Crime and the City Solution (down from Sydney) and the Primitive Calculators. It may be that a band like the Primitive Calculators, who are all but forgotten to rock history, were perfectly-formed in 1979 when The Boys Next Door were still grappling to find a voice. They were certainly the first band I ever saw play live with a drum-machine. But more than that it was their sheer raw intensity, spontaneity and originality that gave The Boys Next Door a hurry-up. Whirlywirld debuted at the Ballroom on New Year’s Eve 1978. Their sound had that sweeping, almost cinematic quality that everyone was starting to chase; within the space of a year, it had naturally (d)evolved into a looser, even more dynamic soundscape. Crime and the City Solution, with whom The Boys Next Door formed a mutual admiration society, contrastingly used bludgeoning repetition to back up front man Simon Bonney’s uncanny grasp of mystery and melodrama. Nick Cave copped a move or two off Bonney, there’s no doubt about that. But even as The Boys Next Door hit their most mannered and, worse-still, preening phase in their attempts to catch up with everything around them, the phase was also ultimately liberating because perhaps more than anything it was about deconstruction. As Captain Beefheart demonstrated – and everyone was listening to Beefheart – you could pull apart the most primal delta blues and put it back together however you liked, however seemingly dislocated. This approach keyed in with the first literary influences finding their way into The Boys Next Door, with both Cave and Howard developing a taste for surrealism, absurdism. Religious imagery was also starting to appear in Cave’s songs. But most crucially it was understanding now that music was about carving out dynamic space, creating tension, that The Boys Next Door could finally get on with loosing the voice within. They had hit the proverbial glass ceiling. They couldn’t go on playing to the same adoring two hundred people every other week at the Ballroom. Like the Saints and Radio Birdman before them, and the GoBetweens, they were just going to have to get out of Australia.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Mushroom Records released The Boys Next Door’s debut album Door, Door in May 1979, but after the single ‘Shivers’ was barred from Countdown (for mentioning suicide), the label dropped the band. It may be one of Mushroom mogul Michael Gudinski’s great regrets, not that he let a talent like Nick Cave slip through his fingers, but that he already had him and then let him go! Manager Keith Glass would now release the band on Missing Link, which was already putting out Whirlywirld and others. Glass put the band in the studio with the Cohen who would be much more important to Nick Cave, in the immediate term, than Leonard Cohen, producer Tony. ‘TC’ would help hone The Birthday Party’s increasingly visceral sound. Cave was starting to dabble in narcotics. Having dropped all the covers from their set when Howard joined, the band introduced a new one, a version of Gene Vincent’s spooky 1950s rockabilly classic ‘Cat Man’, which Keith Glass had played to them. On 29 February 1980, The Boys Next Door flew out of Melbourne. When they landed in London, they were The Birthday Party (after Pinter or Tolstoy). Whirlywirld, the Calculators and Crime and the City Solution would soon follow; I left town myself too, bound for Sydney. Cave has remembered how with the Big One, as he called the punk wars, ‘my life seemed to open up a bit’,10 but surely the great opening up had to be going to England in 1980. It was the making and the breaking of The Birthday Party. You can go all round the world only to find yourself. The Birthday Party were jolted into an almost self-anointed sense of purpose. Immediately they discovered that the grass wasn’t any greener at all. London was a miserable place and they had no money, and the music scene, such as it seemed, was an empty vessel of hype. Cave has related many times how a concert the whole band attended (a bill boasting the latest flavours of the month – Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and the Psychedelic Furs) was so bad, so insipid, that the negative experience itself was almost life-changing.11 Cave was turned on though by one gig he saw – the Cramps. Keith Glass says that that gig had a huge impact on Nick.12 Punk’s going back to the garage was one thing; going back, as the Cramps did, to the swamp, where it all began, was something else again. In regurgitating rock’s most primal white trash/black magic origins, the Cramps pointed to a profound re-alignment of the garage band tradition. The Cramps were art and trash all at once, a collision of sex, death and rock ’n’ roll, and their impact was obvious in Cave’s descent into his early solo ‘Southern Gothic’ persona. Returning to Australia at the end of the year, after playing a meagre ten gigs in London in 1980, it was as if the band went back to the womb. Cave and Howard have both recalled how, having arrived home, they both, independently, Nick Cave, in Stranger in a Strange Land. Walker, Stranded, p. 85. 12 Ibid. 10 11

Planting Seeds


rediscovered the Stooges – no doubt as an antidote to the pap they’d experienced in the UK.13 One night at the Ballroom they played a whole set of Stooges songs just for fun. The Stooges were, again, a trigger like they had been in 1975. Via the Stooges and the Cramps, The Birthday Party were finally finding their voice. Touring nationally with Missing Link labelmates the GoBetweens (now living in Melbourne), and the Laughing Clowns (the band former Saints guitarist Ed Kuepper had formed in Sydney with Jeffrey Wegener), The Birthday Party were again inspired to be at the centre of another extraordinary Australian explosion. Having seen how bad English music could be, and how good bands like the Clowns and the GoBetweens, and the Calculators and Crime could be, the Party were given a great injection of self-confidence. With Tony Cohen, they recorded Prayers on Fire that summer. It remains a pretty good album, even if it is all over the place. The songwriting on the album was wildly divergent. Shared between Nick, Rowland, Mick, Anita Lane (Nick’s girlfriend) and Genevieve McGuckin (Rowland’s girlfriend), it went from the ordinary to stunning. The only song written solely by Cave, ‘Nick the Stripper’, was the standout track. The lead single, it introduces a hitherto unseen sense of grotesque humour, a self-flagellating selfportrait. ‘King Ink’, however, co-written by Nick and Rowland, was the song that laid a template for the fully ripe Birthday Party to come, with its lumbering tempo, malignant sense of space and beguiling literary allusions. Although often charged with misogyny, The Birthday Party were rare among rock bands in not just giving their muses credit but involving them at all. The Rolling Stones may have written ‘Wild Horses’ about Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithful, but when she herself had a hand in writing ‘Sister Morphine’, she received no credit. Anita Lane and Genevieve McGuckin would both act as muses and fully-credited collaborators with The Birthday Party, and both would go on to work further with the musical extended family that grew out of the band. Feeling cut loose anyway, The Birthday Party were able to totally abandon themselves to and into the music. Cave and Howard’s ever-growing heroin consumption further exacerbated a sense of being beyond the law. All this propelled them into a final phase that could only end in self-destruction. With Prayers on Fire having some impact in the UK in 1981, The Birthday Party stepped up to the next level, returning to their previous average of a hundred gigs a year, and venturing into Europe. English bands just didn’t do that. On stage in 1981/82, The Birthday Party, despite or perhaps because of their unpredictability, were at a peak, one of the most compelling and genuinely dangerous live acts ever to besmirch rock history. It was theatre of cruelty in action. They were about the only band ever to get away with covering Stooges songs, and that’s a list that runs from Radio Birdman to the Sex Pistols. At various times in 1981/82 they did three, 13

Ibid., p. 87.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


‘Loose’, ‘Funhouse’ and ‘Little Doll’, and somehow they even managed to extend the ferocity of the originals. The Birthday Party’s supernova was largely facilitated thanks to a shift in the balance of power between the two main songwriters, Cave and Howard. Cave’s greater literary ambitions now started to be in the ascendant. As he became increasingly interested in narrative, he became increasingly disinterested in singing Howard’s songs, with their still quite surrealistic lyrics. Perhaps more to the point, as Cave’s writing went from strength to strength, Howard’s clearly wasn’t keeping up. Cave was already inheriting the mantle from Iggy or Keith Richards as rock’s next most likely casualty. Over the Australian summer of 1981/82, The Birthday Party recorded Junkyard with Tony Cohen, the album so famously adorned with cover art by Big Daddy Ed Roth. I loved that because I grew up building Rat Fink hot rod model kits myself. Junkyard (1982) was a clattering, keening wail, an album mired in drugs, and again, despite some standout tracks largely written by Cave, as a whole it almost collapsed under its own weight. By early 1982, I was living in London myself, in a sprawling flat with the GoBetweens, and Cave and Tracy Pew came to doss on our couch. They had fired drummer Phill Calvert, who went on to join the dreaded Psychedelic Furs. They were going to move to Berlin, with Mick Harvey moving on to drums (Harvey was, and is, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist). It made sense to me. Berlin was where all this stuff we all loved came from, it was sort of a resolution in itself. And it had to be better than London. It would transpire to be The Birthday Party’s last stand. The band would teeter on for another year, but not before recording a pair of 12″ EPs, The Bad Seed and Mutiny (1983), the former of which stands as The Birthday Party’s purest distillation. ‘I would say in retrospect it was definitely a self-annihilating thing’, Cave once told me. ‘I mean, once we got onto the basic train of thought of Junkyard, it was impossible for us to go on forever like the Rolling Stones’.14 Cave was already talking about an EP of covers of Walker Brothers songs even before the band went to Berlin. This was an indication of some of his new influences The Birthday Party were perhaps not quite equipped to accommodate. They were symptomatic too of another opening up. If two things were much more available in London than they were Australia, they were heroin and music, and Cave, like many of us, fed greedily on them both. I was working at the time in the legendary London record shop that wouldn’t give Nick Hornby a job, and it was my mission to steal every record I’d never heard, or previously dismissed due to punky immaturity. I resumed my research into the roots of rock ’n’ roll that had been so rudely interrupted by punk. Lots of other people seemed to be doing the same thing. If I’d already seen blues legends like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley live in Brisbane, now I got more into the white man’s blues, country music. All the real roots of everything. When Cave and Tracy Pew did a radio interview in Cave, in Walker, Stranded, p. 106.


Planting Seeds


Germany around this time and spun some of their current favourite discs, that playlist, which included the Walker Brothers, Hank Williams, Van Morrison and Kris Kristofferson,15 reads very much like the soundtrack the GoBetweens and I were listening to at our Fulham pad in London, the records I smuggled home from work. We were listening to Astral Weeks and Wolf King of LA and After the Goldrush and Return of the Grievous Angel and Music from Big Pink. When Cave did the NME column ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ in April 1982, he listed under ‘Best Things’: Anita first, followed by Wise Blood (the film, the book), the Stooges, Caroline Jones, the Fall, Evel Kneivel, Johnny Cash, Samuel Beckett, George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Robert Mitchum and Big Daddy Ed Roth. On his ‘Deathlist’ he had Supertramp, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Stevie Wonder and some English rock journalist who’d given him a bad write-up.16 These were Cave’s old and new loves and hates that were starting to make him feel limited by The Birthday Party. But the band had yet to play out its death-throes – for which Berlin still seems an appropriate place. When The Birthday Party went into the studio there in 1982 to record The Bad Seed, flying in Tony Cohen to help, it was the same ‘studio by the wall’, Hansa, where Bowie and Iggy recorded so much of their Berlin Quartet. Against a backdrop of German neo-expressionism, the film renaissance and fin de siècle decadence Nick Cave grew wings. He introduced a new cover to the band’s live set, the Loved Ones’ ‘Sad Dark Eyes’, one of the handful of fabulous Australian hits of the 1960s that the rest of the world missed out on. The tighter the focus on Cave got, the better The Birthday Party became. The Bad Seed was the band stripping back to its most elemental: a sea of space, dark and threatening, underlined by the huge Harvey/Pew rhythm section, punctuated by Rowland Howard’s ‘six strings that drew blood’ (as Cave described his guitarplaying), and overarched by Cave’s increasingly convincing narrative voice. Rowland Howard’s songs were barely getting a look-in anymore. The band was falling apart. In early 1983, Jeffrey Wegener sat in on drums for a Dutch tour, allowing Mick Harvey to return to guitar. A short American tour after that was a magnificent disaster. In April the band were back in Berlin, at Hansa, recording Mutiny. In May, the band returned to Australia for a quick tour. I saw the show at the Trade Union Club in Sydney, and the 40-minute set was short but explosive. On 9 June, at the Ballroom in Melbourne, they played a farewell show. It turned out to be The Birthday Party’s last gig. The band was dead. Long live the King, the self-confessed Black Crow King. After a couple of gigs and recording sessions in London in late 1983 with the nominally named Cavemen, Nick Cave returned to Australia again for Christmas

Johnston, Bad Seed, p. 123. Nick Cave, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’, New Musical Express, 10 Apr 1982, archived at 15



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

and played the ‘Man or Myth’ tour, out of which grew the first line-up of the band soon to be christened the Bad Seeds. Now as a solo star with a clearly delineated backing band, Cave built a lineup around the songs and styles he set. The only common element ever remains Mick Harvey. But just as Harvey’s brilliant drumming characterised the early Bad Seeds’ sound as it had that of the late Birthday Party, the bigger difference now was Cave’s moving to piano. Obviously, the type of music you can write and perform on piano, however deftly, is very different to that which a bass/drums/guitar rock ’n’ roll band can conjure up. The piano would allow Nick Cave to start moving towards the more melodic, reflective, orchestrated sound that is now his trademark. Balladry. If, as has almost become a corporate slogan, ‘Nick Cave doesn’t do happy, he does sad and angry’, and the angry side is still very punk rock, electric guitar-oriented, it is the sad for which Cave is most widely liked, and that is based in the piano ballad. Still they’re all story songs, which play out dramas like little movies even without a video – like all those songs beyond just ‘Boots’ that the late Lee Hazlewood wrote, produced and performed with Nancy Sinatra, songs like ‘Some Velvet Morning’, a version of which Rowland Howard released as a single with Lydia Lunch in 1983, and ‘Summer Wine’ and so many other great songs that didn’t also happen to be hits. When Nick Cave programmed the English Meltdown festival in 1999, he put Lee Hazlewood on the bill, helping to revive the maverick artist’s career. He also put Nina Simone on the Meltdown bill. Nina Simone cut the greatest version of ‘I Put a Spell on You’, and regardless of how Cave and The Boys Next Door picked up on the song in the first place – whether the Screaming Jay Hawkins’s original, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version or the Arthur Brown version – by 1984 they had heard Nina Simone singing it, and Cave reintroduced the song to his solo set, as an encore no less. This was highly significant, of course, as a wry comment on his relationship with his audience (‘like hypnotising chickens’, as Iggy once put it), as well as a sort of career bookend, but perhaps no more significant than the two other new covers he introduced: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’, which would come to open the solo Cave debut, From Her to Eternity (1984); and ‘In the Ghetto’, the 1969 wide-screen weepy by Elvis Presley. When he soon came to do Kicking Against the Pricks (1986), his covers album, Cave proffered only a couple of songs from his deepest past (The Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and Alex Harvey’s ‘The Hammer Song’). Most of it was made up of the newer influences that had in some way undermined the latter-day Birthday Party, and most of that was folk and blues and country: Leadbelly, Johnny Cash. This was perhaps less a smart move on Cave’s part than just the survival instinct of a true artist: if he was to grow, he had to dig deeper. In other words, if you’re gonna rip stuff off, you just wanna make sure it’s the best. The masters. The roots. The standards. Cave went back to this deepest well to find food for the monster his music had become. And as much as any artist continues to evolve, absorb new influences, this was like a final building block.

Planting Seeds


But everything Nick Cave has done subsequently has been underlined by the sort of values he learnt somewhere between the Big One in 1976/77 and The Birthday Party’s broader ‘arrival’ in England in 1981. These values comprised a fierce sense of independence both commercially and creatively. This was what enabled Cave to so largely swim against the tide, as he did in the 1980s, before breaking through in the ’90s. Reflecting in 2007 on the impact of punk, Mick Harvey said, ‘It was fantastic for Nick and I to have that touchstone as we wobbled through the 80s’.17 Now Nick Cave could really set to mastering his craft. When I asked him in Australia in the winter of 1983, with The Birthday Party on the verge of its final implosion, ‘Would you agree that love is a central Birthday Party theme?’ he seemed almost taken aback, bemused by the question. ‘It worries me that every song I write seems to be about love’, he said. ‘I mean, it’s not only central, we just harp on it continuously, and the fact that people don’t understand that shows that either we’re not expressing ourselves properly, or that they don’t feel the same things that we do about it, or that they’re … just … thick’.18 Certainly, as a solo artist, Nick Cave grew to express himself more and more effectively.

Mick Harvey, in Keith Cameron, ‘Come the Revolution’, Guardian Unlimited, 20 Jul 2007 [Online], available at,2129910,00. html, accessed 20 Jul 2007. 18 Nick Cave, in Clinton Walker, ‘Love’s Lonely Children’, in Clinton Walker (ed.), The Next Thing: Contemporary Australian Rock (Kenthurst, 1984), p. 17. 17


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Appel, Greg, dir., Long Way to the Top, TV documentary (Australian ABC TV, 2001). Baker, Lindsay, ‘Feelings are a Bourgeois Luxury …’, Guardian Unlimited, 1 Feb 2003 [Online], available at story/0,885692,00.html, accessed 1 Feb 2003. Cameron, Keith, ‘Come the Revolution’, Guardian Unlimited, 20 Jul 2007 [Online], available at,2129910,00.html, accessed 20 Jul 2007. Cave, Nick, ‘Portrait of the Artist as Consumer’, New Musical Express, 10 Apr 1982, archived at Dylan, Bob, Chronicles (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005). Hanson, Amy, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London: Helter Skelter, 2005). Johnston, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1995). Van Splunteren, Bram, dir., Stranger in a Strange Land, TV documentary (Dutch VPRO TV, 1987). Walker, Clinton (ed.), The Next Thing: Contemporary Australian Rock (Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press, 1984). ——, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1996).

Chapter 3

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter Karen Welberry

Is This Man Joking? Nick Cave recently told a London journalist that he planned to have a lifesized statue of himself ‘sat atop a rearing horse’ erected smack in the middle of Warracknabeal, the Australian country town in which he was born. He continued: We found out it was going to cost an extraordinary amount of money so it was decided to make a film of the whole journey of this thing. We were going to make it in England, ship it to Australia, put it on the back of a truck, and dump it in my home town … If they … [didn’t] accept it we were just going to drive it out to the desert and dump it …

As the journalist herself remarked, this story was probably Cave’s idea of a joke. Only she wasn’t entirely sure. When asked, members of Cave’s band did back up his ‘spectacularly unlikely claim’. And, the more one thinks about it, the idea is actually strikingly resonant. Many North Victorian country towns, and especially Wangaratta, where Cave grew up in the 1960s, were once bushranger territory: the signpost on the Hume Highway reads ‘Legends, Wine, and High Country’. Most of these ‘legends’ do involve white men on rearing horses – ‘The Man from Snowy River’ perhaps being the prime case in point. There is, additionally, significant historical piquancy in those remarks about ‘making’ something in England, ‘shipping’ it to Australia, loading it ‘on the back of a truck’, then ‘dumping’ it in the desert. This was the colonial pattern, and it continues to be a metropolitan assumption about what ‘the bush’ is good for. ‘The Man from Yarriambiack Creek’ (my suggested title) probably would make a poignant film. Cave, however, went on to quip ‘I’m Australian – even we don’t know when we’re joking and when we’re not’, and the journalist, perplexed, left it at that. Cave’s ‘Australian-ness’, and its relation to his humour, is a subject to which he has repeatedly drawn attention. ‘I feel Australian to the core’ he told The Age’s Kathy Sweeney, ‘Seeds of Content’, The Guardian, Guide Section, 30 Oct 2004, p. 4. See also Steve Packer, ‘Story of a Nag from a Warracknabeal Wag’, The Age, A2 section, 18 Dec 2004, p. 18.  


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Stephen Dalton in 2004: ‘People ask about the songs, “Are you joking or not?” And I guess part of the Australian humour is that often you don’t know’. And yet Cave’s ‘language of laughter’, long relished by fans and friends, is more often strategically neglected for mention in the mainstream media. It is also one of the most critically ignored aspects of Cave’s important work. Reviewing And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) for the New York Review of Books in 1990, Margaret Mifflin wrote that ‘rock singer Nick Cave must have a formidable thesaurus, a hefty chunk of which has been conspicuously grafted onto his first novel … It’s as if the author has gone haywire in an effort to deflect the popular charge that rockers are illiterates suited to more primitive pursuits’. Taking a different angle in 1995, Simon Reynolds and Joy Press accused Cave of blatant misogyny. In a chapter of The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll focused on ‘rebel misogynies’, they wrote: ‘the most powerful exploration of these ideas (because almost pathologically obsessive) comes from the post-punk icon Nick Cave … Murdered, the flawed, all-too-human woman can’t threaten to shatter his fetishised image of her’. Reynolds, Press and Mifflin all interpret Cave very literally, examining his lyrics as unmediated expressions of the artist himself and some kind of deluded ambition to rule the world. Their remarks broadly typify all that has been published on Cave outside of the celebratory, but often superficial, music magazines. The small number of lyrics analysed by Press and Reynolds – ‘She’s Hit’ (1982), ‘Six Inch Gold Blade’ (1982), ‘From Her to Eternity’ (1984), ‘Your Funeral … My Trial’ (1986) and ‘The Mercy Seat’ (1988) – of course look rather different when read against Cave’s oeuvre as a whole, and particularly his more recent work. One has to go no further than Cave’s contributions to Anita Lane’s 1995 album, Dirty Pearl, to find an inversion of the sexual politics allegedly at play in the earlier lyrics. On the B-side of a single released as ‘The World’s a Girl’, Cave sings a duet with Lane (a send-up of Serge Gainsbourg’s sexy classic, ‘Je T’Aime’) and backing vocals to another track (‘Bedazzled’). Lane being Cave’s former girlfriend, and bearing the critical clichés in mind, it is tempting to assume some biographical pertinence to the title-track lines: ‘You said “the world’s a girl and I’m taking her apart” / and when I cried you said “beggar girl” and laughed’. Personal suppositions aside, however, what is incontrovertible about this record is that Cave plays the part of ‘the man’: a man who is condemned in ‘The World’s a Girl’; exposed in sexual selfishness  Stephen Dalton, ‘The Light in the Cave’, The Age, Good Weekend Section, 19 Sep 2004.  Margaret Mifflin, Rev. of And the Ass Saw the Angel, New York Review of Books, 30 Sept 1990, p. 28.  Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Cambridge, MA, 1995), p. 28.  Anita Lane, ‘The World’s a Girl’ (co-written with Mick Harvey), The World’s a Girl, CD single (Mute Records, 1995). Lyrics by Anita Lane, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


in ‘I Love You … Nor Do I’; and reduced to a string of clichés in ‘Bedazzled’. Collaborating on such a project, I would suggest, is not the act of a misogynist, even if it is a knowing and calculated bid to confront audience expectations. To be fair, Dirty Pearl was not available when The Sex Revolts went to press. Cave was also yet to sing from a female perspective in songs such as ‘The Curse of Millhaven’ (1996), ‘Dead Man in My Bed’ (2003) and, most recently, in a cover of the sea shanty, ‘Pinery Boy’ (2006). But Reynolds and Press only needed to glance at the video clips to ‘The Weeping Song’ (1991) or ‘Straight to You’ (1992) to see that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and their creative associates, have long used visual humour to undermine or unsettle an apparently straightforward message. Inversion of expectations and a dissonant visual register are two of the ‘funny sides’ to Cave that many enjoy in his work. But it is Cave’s ‘language of laughter’ – his use of words – that is the special focus of this chapter. In contrast to Mifflin, I am far from recommending that Cave cease amorous contact with his thesaurus. On the contrary, as an Australian of English origin, I am increasingly intrigued by the way Cave conjures and transforms the English literary heritage. There is surely less of the pretentious rock star in Cave than there is what Clive James lovingly called the ‘Kangarococo’. Many people, myself included, relish the way Cave injects absurdly discordant erudition, banality, or lyricism into seemingly inappropriate places. In their ground-breaking study of postcolonial literatures, The Empire Writes Back (1989), Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin theorised this kind of wordplay as ‘abrogation and appropriation of the colonial literary heritage’. What they meant by this was that linguistic extravagance does not have to be seen as some kind of ‘compensatory’ gesture or apelike mimicry, as in Mifflin’s remark above. Quite the reverse: the linguistic experimentation of many writers and performers of the English diaspora played a crucial role in unsettling both the cultural and political dominance of the former colonial power. ‘Mimicry’ in particular has been shown to be an extremely effective means of making so-called ‘superiors’ step back and look at themselves. Kathy Sweeney, the London journalist quoted above, characterised Cave’s claim about the horse as ‘spectacularly unlikely’.10 I like this phrase. It seems to me an apt descriptor not only of the statue story, but of Cave’s style of word-smithing as a whole. Yet, in contrast to Sweeney, I don’t have a problem with either the ‘truth’ or humour in this kind of technique. Neither, I suspect, do many Australians with a ‘literary’ bent. The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate how and why Cave’s ‘spectacularly unlikely’ words and rhymes become an incisive ‘language of laughter’ when put back in the Australian postcolonial context from which they emerged.  Clive James, qtd. in Ian Britain, Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (Melbourne, 1997), pp. 19–20.  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London, 1989), p. 39.  Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, 1994), pp. 85–9. 10 Sweeney, ‘Seeds of Content’, p. 4.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Wordplay and the Colonial Literary Heritage To begin with, it is perhaps necessary to clarify why Cave’s recent claim to be ‘more or less … a comic writer’11 must seem a comic statement in itself to most of the music-buying and film-going world. Cave’s music has been known as accompaniment to scenes of self-destruction in films such as Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space (1979), end-of-the-century desolation and decadence, as in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), or just plain depression, as in Shrek 2 (2004), directed by Andrew Adamson, Conrad Vernon and Kelly Asbury. As McKenzie Wark has usefully detailed, personal endorsement of Cave’s music has become, in contemporary culture, a way of making a stance against the bright ephemeral pap of pop, of aligning the self with swampland ‘contagion’ against upbeat ‘selfimprovement’.12 Concomitantly, distaste for Cave has become a way of distancing the self from imputations of melodrama and melancholy: ‘can’t stand Nick Cave’ writes John Birmingham’s apparently well-grounded narrator/self in He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (1994).13 Wark’s view of Cave as the ‘pale-gilled, smackaddled misogynist Gothic monster’ par excellence might have positive or negative connotations for the individual, but it is a view firmly entrenched in the popular media, as any casual survey will attest. Cave has certainly fostered this ‘prince of darkness’ image. In the visual realm, he has condoned a series of seductive images of himself as a latter-day Heathcliff. The 2003 Australian tour poster for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for example, featured a striking black silhouette of Cave on a red background. That shoulderlength hair, that slightly rumpled suit, those ‘basilisk eyes’ and, well (perhaps not), that smouldering cigarette; all this could have stepped out of Bronte’s 1847 novel. Those simple brush-strokes unmistakably identify ‘Nick Cave’ from virtually any line-up of suspects. Although they reflect Cave’s personal styling from the mid 1990s, they are likely to continue to do so well into the ‘noughties’, regardless of whether Cave actually flaunts a crew cut or moustache. Lyrically too, many of Cave’s songs are shadowed by traces of seminal Romantic texts. To cite just two brief examples, here are the opening stanzas of two songs, ‘The Hammer Song’ (1990), and ‘Song of Joy’ (1996): I set out on Monday The night was cold and vast And my brother slept And though I left quite quietly

11 Max Décharné, ‘“It’s the Work of a Genius”’ [Interview with Nick Cave], Mojo, Oct 2004, p. 96. 12 McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale, 1999), pp. 85–98. 13 John Birmingham, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (Sydney, 1994), p. 170.

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


My father raged and raged And my mother wept14 Have mercy on me, sir Allow me to impose on you I have no place to stay And my bones are cold right through I will tell you a story Of a man and his family And I swear that it is true15

The first is a paraphrase of Blake’s ‘My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt’ in ‘Infant Sorrow’ (1794), one of the ‘Songs of Experience’.16 The second closely emulates Wordsworth’s narrative technique in poems such as ‘The Thorn’ (1798), with its ballad rhythms, deferential speaker, and tragically ‘ordinary’ tale. As the song proceeds, there are also traces of Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798) and Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1820). Canonical resonances are utilised in both these songs to present the speaker in the guise of Romantic seer with serious artistic intention and vision. From the very first lines, those lexical choices – ‘raged’, ‘mercy’ and ‘sir’ – effectively locate the texts in a nineteenth-century world where the Bible is still the operative frame. Add to this powerful cultural logic the pulpit quality of Cave’s ‘deep, dark brown voice’,17 and you get a convincing impression of Cave as an artist in what Melbourne poet and songwriter Russell Forster has called the ‘chthonian’ songwriting tradition.18 ‘Chthonian’ in this context means ‘universal’, in the sense of concerning the primal impulses and mythic structures uniting human history, and relating to the ‘underworld’ or shadowy figures of those stories; the ones that remind us of death in the midst of life. When a ‘chthonic’ writer announces that ‘there is a war coming, coming from above’,19 one is tempted to believe that he is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Hammer Song’, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 15 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Song of Joy’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 16 William Blake, ‘Infant Sorrow’, in M.H. Abrams (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition (New York; London, 1986), p. 44. According to Amy Hanson, Cave read this Blake poem on a BBC TV programme called Poetry Nation on 6 October 1994. Amy Hanson, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London, 2005), p. 101. 17 Robert Sandall, ‘Nick Cave: Renaissance Man’, Word, Mar 2003, p. 54. 18 Russell Forster, ‘The Bad Seed from the Bad Seed Bed: A Cultural Perspective on the Work of Nick Cave’, Overland 149 (1997), p. 60. 19 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Hiding All Away’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 14

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


entirely earnest in his gloom, albeit a little warped, like some kind of Ruskinian prophet teetering on metaphysics, laudanum and imploded desire. Forster’s piece on Cave, ‘The Bad Seed from the Bad Seed Bed: A Cultural Perspective on the Work of Nick Cave’, published in Overland over ten years ago (1997) remains one of the few analyses of Cave worthy of notice. Indeed, Forster piqued my interest in Cave with his comments about how Cave’s ‘passion for the grotesque’ related to that of Albert Tucker and Barry Humphries, and how the centrality of crime to his oeuvre related to ‘Australia as a prison state’.20 In arguing that Cave was a ‘chthonic’ songwriter, Forster brought Cave to the attention of a wider Australian public, a public not necessarily looking for a serious artist in the guise of a rock and roll star. Forster pointed out the obvious, but infrequently made, connection between an artist who is interested in the ‘gothic’ or repressed side of life, and a country that continues to be haunted by its own repressed past. It is fitting to ensconce Cave in a list of songwriters that includes Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Neil Young. But to register only the depth, importance and sincerity of Cave’s engagement with artistic expression would be to miss the truly distinctive feature of his creative poetics: the wicked extravagance – the swaggering humour – of his performative persona. Cave certainly consolidates his literary and musical agenda in Murder Ballads: to use Forster’s terms, he demonstrates that his ‘process of self-discovery’ produces ‘the watersheds we come to recognize ourselves by’.21 However Cave also deploys avatars of his own iconic identity on this record, as on others, cagily inviting audience confusion: ‘I am tall and I am thin / Of an enviable height / And I’ve been known to be quite handsome / From a certain angle and in a certain light’.22 He rhymes things like ‘vicious’ with things like ‘dirty dishes’: wild leaps from discourses miles apart. Such cognitive dissonance makes one laugh I would suggest, or at least grin broadly. As does the fact that, in one song, Cave describes the murder of 12 successive victims in increasingly poetic terms. Pausing from his bloodfest, the learned speaker in ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ finds time to reflect ‘And curling from the business end of my gun / A query mark of cordite’. The humour here resides in that inversion of expectations about the erudition of the ‘criminal class’. By contrast, in a new version of the African-American paean ‘Stagger Lee’, Cave not only manages to use the word ‘motherfucker’ in nine different contexts, but casts aspersions on this counter-cultural hero’s heterosexuality. Indeed, in the videoclip to ‘Stagger Lee’, Cave the ‘prince of darkness’ prances in a skin-tight pink T-shirt and shiny pants while a couple of half-naked hunks gyrate frontstage.23 Alongside the ‘chthonic’ splendour of this album, it is therefore an understatement to suggest


Forster, ‘Bad Seed from the Bad Seed Bed’, pp. 60, 62. Ibid., p. 60. 22 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘O’Malley’s Bar’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 23 See Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Videos, DVD (Mute Records, 2004). 21

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


that there are an abundance of carnivalesque pleasures, even leaving aside the dubious satirical quantity of the duet with Kylie Minogue. To assign Cave a purely ‘gothic’ grandeur would also be to mis-read the pertinence of his literary allusions in the Australian context. Postcolonial writers and critics have long pointed to the role ‘the English book’ played in imperial conquest. Where missionaries in the colonial context drew their ‘lessons’ from the authority of scripture, teachers drew their lessons from the ‘secular scripture’ of the English literary canon. In this way, as Gauri Viswanathan notes, ‘the English literary text … function[ed] … as a surrogate Englishman’ in places such as nineteenthcentury India; it functioned as a ‘mask’ for what Englishmen were really doing to the colonies in terms of ‘material exploitation, and class and race oppression’.24 It is for this reason that many postcolonial writers have ‘written back’ to the ‘English canon’, variously subverting it, contextualising it, or otherwise making it over for their own purposes. This mirrors the way in which other former colonial subjects, Rastafarians, for example, have drawn their iconography from scripture. Cave’s work partially fits both the religious and literary postcolonial pattern. That is, Cave’s psychopaths characteristically adhere to extremely literal interpretations of canonical texts. Many of his early murderers and misogynists, for example, were upheld by old testament scripture – Euchrid, in And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989), the speakers in ‘Hard on for Love’ (1986) and ‘Brother, My Cup is Empty’ (1992). Such characters quote scripture to legitimate their actions; they use the ‘letter’ of the law to defy the spirit of the law. By doing exactly as they are told, but too literally – to excess – these characters confront the system. In ‘Hard on for Love’, The Lord’s Prayer becomes an invitation to rape: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … / I am his rod and his staff / I am his sceptre and shaft / And she is Heaven and Hell / At whose gates I ain’t been delivered’.25 One could call this utter profanity, and misogyny to boot. On the other hand, one could note that it is so blatantly overdone that the words positively lend themselves to this kind of metaphorical treatment. There is something inherently thrilling and wickedly amusing in a song prepared to point out this congruence of metaphors in defiance of authority, regardless of one’s gender or religion. The Bible was a key intertext to Cave’s earlier work. However this is notably not the case on the more recent album with the highest body count of all: Murder Ballads (1996). Here the prestigious archive of English poetry is held up for scrutiny. In ‘Song of Joy’, the killer ‘quotes John Milton on the walls in the victim’s blood’.26 In ‘The Curse of Millhaven’, it is the idea that ‘we all gotta die’

Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York, 1989), p. 20. 25 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Hard on for Love’, Your Funeral, My Trial, CD (Mute Records, 1986). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 26 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Song of Joy’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 24


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

that is taken to a ridiculously literal extreme.27 This refrain recalls ‘she dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die’ in Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1820).28 Keats’s ‘Ode’­ – one of this tragically short-lived poet’s four famous Odes – reflected on the way passing is a condition of existence. Together with work by Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron, such lyrics set the standard for modern verse well into the twentieth century. In this context, ‘beauty that must die’ means ‘beauty that must die because everything does’. In Cave’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, this figurative Romantic pre-text is explicit. After bashing the woman with a rock the male speaker concludes: ‘As I kissed her goodbye, I said, “All beauty must die” / And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth’.29 Here ‘beauty must die’ is taken as directive rather than philosophical reverie. By interpreting Keats’s lines completely ‘dead-pan’, a hundred and eighty degrees to the way in which they were surely intended, Cave creates a deliciously macabre parody of British Romantic culture. These songs of death are so funny at least partly because this was the culture that informed colonial Australia, and continued to be privileged in Australian schools well into the 1980s. Ian Reid has recently drawn attention to the way in which Alfred Deakin’s prime ministerial speeches between 1903 and 1910 were laced with Wordsworthian quotations and rhetoric.30 Deakin even wrote a book on Wordsworth. It is hardly surprising that the society that gave rise to such a prime minister would also deify Ned Kelly and The Man from Snowy River – nor that the Murder Ballads have so much resonance in this postcolonial context.31 With their impressive lexical and syntactical mimicry of the Lyrical Ballads, their wholesale subversion of the ‘moral’ intention of such poetry, and their repetitive interjection of typically Australian expletives into this ‘high cultural’ genre, these songs strike a chord deep within the Australian psyche. It does not matter in the slightest whether these sources are explicitly recognised by audiences. Reid writes that, for nigh on a century, they have been so naturalised by our education system that they function as an ‘invisible frame’. As Mike McLeod affirms, the ‘delights in daffodils’ genre inaugurated by Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (1807) was pervasive enough to seem synonymous with ‘poetry’ to many Australian school students

27 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Curse of Millhaven’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 28 John Keats, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, in M.H. Abrams (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition (New York; London, 1986), p. 824. 29 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 30 Ian Reid, Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies (Aldershot; Burlington, VT, 2004). 31 Louise Gray thoughtfully reviewed this album in the New Statesman and Society (9 Feb 1996, p. 33), and has subsequently referenced Cave numerous times in the New Internationalist (for example, March 2000, p. 33).

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


in the early 1980s, as in other former British colonies.32 Needless to say, the irrelevancy of this kind of verse was enough to turn generations of children off poetry. Cave’s juxtaposition of ‘poetic’ and explicitly English images such as ‘his blood spilled across the bar / like a steaming scarlet brook’, with late-twentiethcentury Ocker banality – ‘And with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick / I split his skull in half’ – are not only supremely satisfying ‘decolonising fiction’, they are blessed relief.33 Cave declared himself a ‘figure of fun / Dead-pan and moribund’ in 1981.34 These lines, delivered in an anguished snarl and accompanied by a staccato of grunts, guitars and drums, probably did little to convince many people back then.35 Yet, in hindsight, the lines do offer a productive gloss on Cave’s literary style. Cave not only conjures Romantic scenes of literary production, he over-conjures them. He not only writes poetry: he camps it up to the max. Many of his most recent lyrics are not poems so much as words about poetry: about inspiration as sexual arousal, and tumescence as self-serving delusion – ‘You turn me on … Like a song … Like an atom bomb’.36 Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is an extended meditation on the role of art, specifically poetry, in a contemporary world riven by war. It is by turns achingly poignant and utterly hilarious in its selfreferentiality and hammy poetics. The first single from the record, ‘Nature Boy’, opens by referencing Cave’s childhood in 1960s country Victoria: I was just a boy when I sat down To watch the news on TV I saw some ordinary slaughter I saw some routine atrocity 32 William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ [‘Daffodils’], in M.H. Abrams (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition (New York; London, 1986), p. 206. Mike McLeod, ‘Being Sick on the Daffodils: Poetry and the Adolescent’, in Valerie Hoogstad and Maurice Saxby (eds), Teaching Literature to Adolescents (Melbourne, 1988), p. 122. See also Karen Welberry, ‘Colonial and Postcolonial Deployment of “Daffodils”’, Kunapipi 19.1 (1997): 32–44. 33 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘O’Malley’s Bar’. See also Diana Brydon and Helen Tiffin, Decolonising Fictions (Sydney, 1993). Cave makes explicit reference to ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ in ‘The Moon is in the Gutter’ (From Her to Eternity, CD [Mute Records, 1983]) and ‘Darker is the Day’ (No More Shall We Part, CD [Mute Records, 2001]). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 34 The Birthday Party, ‘Figure of Fun’, Prayers on Fire, CD (Shock Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 35 See The Birthday Party, Pleasure Heads Must Burn, DVD (Cherry Red Records, 2003). 36 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Babe, You Turn Me On’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


My father said, don’t look away You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now He said, that in the end it is beauty That is going to save the world, now37

Since Cave’s father was an English teacher, it’s not inappropriate to read an allusion to Keats in that imputed advice: the famous ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1820) that ends with the enigmatic lines ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’.38 Strengthening these connotations are several references to Grecian themes on the album. Keats’ ‘dales of Arcady’, ‘happy boughs’, ‘piping songs’ and ‘Cold Pastoral’ can, moreover, be seen to summarise this record as a whole. Not only does it come packaged in pastel pinks, yellows and blues, with the front cover and each single cover stamped with an outlandishly kitsch ‘nature’ image, but Cave has here managed to outdo even his own former valiant tally of weary moons and swing-worthy stars. There are more flowers, trees, birds, seas, stars, moons and rivers on this record than in a David Attenborough box-set. Just to cite the flowers, as they are most numerous, we have crocus, cornflower, chicory, wisteria, bluebells, clover and purple heather itemised, and a further six references to just plain ‘flowers’. I have no doubt that Cave likes flowers. Even so, it is notable that all these flowers are so very English, as are the trees and birds he enumerates; the bunnies, gambolling lambs, foxes and deer, and the ‘brook’, ‘meadow’, ‘hedgerow’, ‘moor’ and ‘down’. As a resident of Hove near Brighton, Cave certainly has every right to suture himself into the English countryside. But he is surely overdoing it here in a way that parodies the picturesque. If Colin Cave, a teacher of literature, modest author, and latterly revered as the driving force behind adult education in Wangaratta in the 1960s, did actually speak of the ‘saving’ role of ‘beauty’, as Cave implies in this song, it is historically probable that he meant the ability to derive moral sustenance from such a pastoral tradition and its expression in art. His son represents himself as a ‘nature boy’ primarily in an ironic sense. He is ‘walking around the flower show like a leper’ when he is stopped short by a beautiful woman. She hails him with this phrase only to question what he is looking at. From this point on, it is the beauty of the woman that will save the world – nature becomes merely ‘something’ that she ‘pointed at’, or, more provocatively, a euphemism for sexual congress.39 It is useful, at this juncture, to elaborate in a little more detail on the biographical and cultural significance of this ‘nature boy’ move. As noted above, the son (implicitly the singer) links the father (implicitly Colin Cave) to the idea of ‘beauty’ Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Nature Boy’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 38 John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, in M.H. Abrams (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition (New York; London, 1986), pp. 822–3. 39 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Nature Boy’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 37

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


in this song. Colin Cave died in a tragic accident in 1978 when his youngest son was just twenty-one. Nick Cave has confessed to a ‘difficult’ relationship with his father. It has also been documented that he learnt about the fatal car crash in extremely unfortunate circumstances.40 In his lecture, ‘The Flesh Made Word’ (1996), Cave implicitly figured this relationship in terms of an oedipal drama: ‘just as Christ was to His Father, I am a generation further on, and, if you’ll forgive me, Dad, in evolutionary terms an advanced version’. In this lecture he singled out the fact that his father had wanted to be a writer but how the two short stories he had published ‘were tiny seeds planted in a garden that did not grow’.41 In ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’ (1998), Cave spoke further about how the idea of ‘end[ing] up like my father’ filled him with ‘abject horror’, and that ‘the loss of my father created in my life a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose’.42 These reflections, and others, autobiographically suggest that Cave is driven by, and has not yet assuaged, the desire to supersede or appease his father and all he stood for. Freudian speculations always make for a good read.43 It is important to note, however, that this oedipal narrative, initiated by Cave, tends to camouflage the innovatory aspects of Colin Cave’s career. It also dissembles the culturally significant way that Cave himself is recuperating these ideas about art and beauty. In the final part of this chapter, I turn to the role both Caves, the one with his teacher’s credentials, and the other with his self-appointed ‘jangling jester’s cap’,44 have played, and continue to play, in transforming the British literary heritage.


According to Ian Johnston, Cave and his mother were told at the St Kilda police station, where she was bailing him out on a charge of ‘vandalism and being drunk and disorderly’. Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1995), p. 56. 41 Nick Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’ (1996), repr. in King Ink II (London, 1997), p. 141. 42 Nick Cave, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, repr. in The Complete Lyrics 1978– 2001 (London, 2001), p. 6. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 43 Cave recognised this in a poem he published in the 1974 edition of Ex Tempore, Caulfield Grammar’s magazine: ‘Uncertain really why I am drawing / keys and keyholes on my desk top / though I am sure Mr Freud would tell me / … I search with my pen / … for a person who will let me / open the door to their heart’ (Nick Cave, ‘A Locksmith’s Plea for a Secure Position’, Ex Temporare [Caulfield Grammar School, 1974]). My thanks to Clinton Walker for sending me copies of these poems. 44 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Thirsty Dog’, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


The Jangling Jester’s Cap Colin Cave was a remarkable man. ‘Committed, dynamic, imaginative and a man with a vision’ were some of the epithets chosen in 1994, when a new gallery was named in his honour at the Wangaratta Centre for Adult and Community Education.45 ‘Highly respected and well liked … I think his key contribution to society was being instrumental in setting up the Centre for adult education. This was extremely far sighted when you look back’ is a more personal comment from a Wangaratta High School student of the 1960s.46 Teacher of drama and English literature at Wangaratta High School (1959–71),47 director of the Wangaratta Adult Education Centre (1962–71) and, latterly, director of the Victorian Council of Adult Education in Melbourne (1972–78), Colin Cave was also responsible for organising the first symposium on the Ned Kelly legacy,48 and for helping to inaugurate the annual Harrietville music camp, an eight-day study retreat for aspiring orchestral musicians still running today.49 Colin Cave received the Wangaratta civic award in 1971,50 sat on the Theatre Board of the first-ever Australian Council for the Arts in 1973,51 and was still quoted on the home page of the La Trobe Valley University of the Third Age in 2005.52 If his desk ‘contained the beginnings of several aborted novels’ in 1969,53 all this is worth bearing in mind. Jacquie Scwind, qtd. in Parliament of Victoria, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard): Legislative Assembly, Fifty-fourth Parliament, First Session 5 October 2000 (extract from Book 4), p. 926. 46 Jennie McFadden (Withers), Email to Karen Welberry, 23 Nov 2003. My thanks to the Withers family for sharing their memories of Wangaratta High in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 47 Johnston infers that both Colin and Dawn Cave worked at Wangaratta High School when they moved there from Warracknabeal in 1959 (Johnston, Bad Seed). In the 75th Anniversary History of Wangaratta High School 1909–1984, ed. Dawn and Lyn Barr, it is implied that Colin was appointed as a full-time teacher in 1961 (Wangaratta High School, 1984), p. 136. Between 1962 and 1971 he was presumably director of the Centre and parttime teacher at the School. 48 Colin Cave, ed., Ned Kelly: Man and Myth (North Melbourne, 1968). 49 Andra Jackson, ‘Band of Gold Turns It Up for a Real Camp Wedding’, The Age [Online], 16 Jan 2006, available at, accessed 13 Dec 2006. 50 Bill O’Callaghan and Bill Findlay, Wangaratta 1959–1984: A Silver City (Wangaratta, 1984), p. 152. O’Callaghan and Findlay also note (p. 171) that Colin Cave had a street named after him in Wangaratta: Cave Court. 51 Gough Whitlam, ‘Australian Council for the Arts, Press Statement No. 54’, 16 Feb 1973 [Online], available at: Council_Arts/, accessed 13 Dec 2006. 52 Colin Cave, ‘The Value of Education’, La Trobe Valley U3A [Online], available at, accessed 8 Jun 2005. 53 Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, p. 141. 45

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


Colin Cave may have recited ‘great bloody slabs’ from the literary classics to his children. But he demonstrably made a career out of applying that passion for literature and learning: making it useful and accessible to a real community, and bringing it to bear on topics of local interest. ‘It is the purpose of education,’ he once wrote, ‘to increase our alternatives’.54 In 2006, this ‘applied’ and ‘ongoing’ view of the relevance of English, literature and drama to all individuals is endorsed by Australian curriculum framework documents – if not by senior members of our Liberal Government.55 In the late 1950s and 1960s this was not the case. As Catherine Beavis notes, in the post-war years the idea of English as a means of ‘developing the character of the individual … a great moralising force’ was the dominant paradigm in Australian education.56 According to Beavis, this Romantic view, inherited from the British as we have already seen, was in part an attempt to ‘shore up and consolidate prewar views of Anglo-Australian identity’.57 It was a paradigm irrevocably shifted in the mid 1980s by the insights of post-colonialism and postmodernism; marked by the ‘English as text’ and ‘critical literacy’ approach, as well as by attempts to make the subject matter studied more locally relevant. Colin Cave was clearly an innovator in this respect. His provision of options for ‘life-long learning’ to the Wangaratta community changed the lives of many, especially women. Viewed within this frame, Nick Cave is not so much displacing the Romantic literary tradition of his father in his work, as pragmatically refiguring that tradition just as his father did before him. The seriousness of English poetry and its claims for attention in a ‘culture of death’58 are humorously critiqued on Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus. There is, for example, a generous smattering of the unlikely rhymes that have become something of a signature for Cave: ‘cloak us’ with ‘crocus’, ‘Auden’ with ‘boredom’, ‘G minor 7’ with ‘heaven’ and, my personal favourite, ‘pluck’ with ‘O my God’. These rhymes parade their cleverness. They are exactly the kind of ‘too fine’ thing one is told to ‘strike out’ at school, yet Cave delights in overstretching the metre so they will fit. ‘I was walking around the flower show like a leper / Coming down with some kind of nervous hysteria / When I saw you standing there, green eyes, black hair / Up against the pink and 54

Cave, ‘The Value of Education’. See David Freesmith ‘The Politics of the English Curriculum: Ideology in the Campaign Against Critical Literacy in The Australian’, English in Australia 41.1 (2006): 25–30, for a useful summary of this debate. 56 Victorian Parliament, qtd. Catherine Beavis, ‘Changing Constructions: Literature, “Text” and English Teaching in Victoria’, in Bill Green and Catherine Beavis (eds), Teaching the English Subjects: Essays on English Curriculum History and Australian Schooling (Geelong, 1996), p. 28. 57 Beavis, ‘Changing Constructions’, p. 26. 58 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Abattoir Blues’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 55

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


purple wisteria’ must be a contender for the longest-ever rhyming couplet in a pop song.59 One could say that this is therefore ‘bad’ poetry. But one could also say, recalling Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s concept of ‘nation language’, that it is spectacularly undeterred by pedagogical advice; confident in the ability of a singing voice not English nor American to ram it all into the requisite number of bars.60 The meaning in Cave’s songs, as with so many postcolonial writers, often resides in precisely such flourishes: in his persona as a poet who ‘weren’t much of a poet’,61 who pursues the suspicion of the culturally marginalised about the regimented control of language. Mifflin pointed out with disgust that in And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave used ‘saltatory fulgence’, ‘mantic manifestation’ and ‘margarite conjuration’ in ‘one ambitious two-line passage’.62 In ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, he repeats ‘the well went down very deep’ four times in four lines, adding ‘Well, [the well …]’ in front of the final clause and finishing it with ‘hell’.63 Both the banal monosyllabic repetitions and the extravagance are characteristic of other postcolonial writers who choose words for comic and musically deflating effect as much as for philosophical insight. Yet, if the touchstones of ‘great’ poetry and art are humorously deflated on this record, they are also coveted. On ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, Cave reels off a list of famous writers and artists and how they achieved their most esteemed work: John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox Nabakov wrote on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks St. John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks

He then laments ‘lying here, with nothing in my ears / … Lying here, for what seems years’ and, despite the fact that pox, imprisonment, and being half dead might sound self-evidently unattractive, implores ‘send that stuff on down to me / send that stuff on down to me …’. The tempo quickens, Conway Savage rips up and down the keyboard like a cousin of David Helfgott, and a full-on gospel choir 59

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Nature Boy’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 60 Edward Kamau Brathwaite, ‘Nation Language’, 1984, extracted in Bill Ashcroft. Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds), The Postcolonial Studies Reader (London; New York, 1995), p. 311. 61 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 62 Mifflin, Rev. of And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 28. 63 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter


takes the song to the realms of soul. ‘I just want to move the world’ Cave roars as that honky-tonk piano surely kindles with heat. In this apocalyptic crescendo of sound, nothing could be more sincere.64 The five-minute list of trees, artists, confession and incantation in ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ strangely is, in a nutshell, the way Cave has always ‘moved the world’ – or, at least, the 500, 000 or more people in it who buy each of his records.65 He acts as a conduit for all kinds of transcendent desires at moments like these: the Wordsworthian ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused’,66 but also the ‘man in the basement … getting a taste for it’ and ‘the patriot with his plunder … watching a boat full of refugees / sinking into the sea’.67 Cave’s ‘language of laughter’ can suddenly become surprisingly serious, as in this last line from his 2003 reflection on artistic inspiration, ‘Babe, I’m on Fire’. It is not only a deeply postcolonial ‘double take’ on the privilege of artistic life, but can often be read as particularly pointed in Australian terms. The ‘jangling jester’s cap’ here allows him to simultaneously use Romanticism – the genuine desire to transcend the moment and connect to something meaningful – and to critique the cultural baggage that goes with it; specifically the precious idea that being ‘inspired’ or ‘cultured’ marks right off from wrong. He might not have known it at the time, but Colin Cave transformed the British literary tradition he inherited by leaving his novels in their dusty desk drawer. By taking his passion to the people of Wangaratta, young and old, male and female, he helped them see through books, film and plays what they might themselves realise; what might yet be done in their lives and in the world. Nick Cave also transforms this tradition by taking some of the persistent earnestness and elitism out of it: giving it hilarity and levity as well as dignity and gravitas. Like his father, with the help of his artistic collaborators he also transforms it by taking it out of the cerebral, intellectual realm and making it a kinaesthetic, bodily, experience – felt in the blood. Both moves are significant in the context of national, and international, debates about the ongoing value of literary texts.


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 65 Sandall, ‘Nick Cave’, p. 54. 66 William Wordsworth, ‘Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, 1798, Stephen Gill (ed.), The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (Oxford, 1984), p. 134. 67 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Babe, I’m on Fire’, Nocturama, CD (Mute Records, 2003). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989). Barr, Dawn and Lyn Barr, 75th Anniversary History of Wangaratta High School 1909–1984 (Wangaratta: Wangaratta High School, 1984). Beavis, Catherine, ‘Changing Constructions: Literature, “Text” and English Teaching in Victoria’, in Bill Green and Catherine Beavis (eds), Teaching the English Subjects: Essays on English Curriculum History and Australian Schooling (Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1996). Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994). Birmingham, John, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1994). The Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire, CD (Shock Records, 1981). ——, Pleasure Heads Must Burn, DVD (Cherry Red Records, 2003). Blake, William, ‘Infant Sorrow’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition, gen. ed. M.H. Abrams (New York; London: W.W. Norton, 1986). Brathwaite, Edward Kamau, ‘Nation Language’, 1984, extracted in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds), The Postcolonial Studies Reader (London; New York: Routledge, 1995). Britain, Ian, Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997). Brydon, Diana and Helen Tiffin, Decolonising Fictions (Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1993). Cave, Colin (ed.), Ned Kelly: Man and Myth (North Melbourne: Cassell, 1968). ——, ‘The Value of Education’, La Trobe Valley U3A [Online], available at http://, accessed 8 Jun 2005. Cave, Nick, ‘A Locksmith’s Plea for a Secure Position’, Ex Temporare (Caulfield: Caulfield Grammar School, 1974). ——, ‘The Flesh Made Word’ (1996), repr. in King Ink II (London: Black Spring Press, 1997). ——, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, repr. in The Complete Lyrics 1978–2001 (London: Penguin, 2001). Cave, Nick, and the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, CD (Mute Records, 1983). ——, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). ——, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). ——, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). ——, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). ——, Nocturama, CD (Mute Records, 2003). ——, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). ——, The Videos, DVD (Mute Records, 2004).

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Dalton, Stephen, ‘The Light in the Cave’, The Age, Good Weekend Section (19 Sep 2004). Décharné, Max, ‘“It’s the Work of a Genius”’ [Interview with Nick Cave], Mojo (Oct 2004). Forster, Russell, ‘The Bad Seed from the Bad Seed Bed: A Cultural Perspective on the Work of Nick Cave’, Overland 149 (1997): 60–63. Freesmith, David, ‘The Politics of the English Curriculum: Ideology in the Campaign Against Critical Literacy in The Australian’, English in Australia 41.1 (2006): 25–30. Gray, Louise, Rev. of Murder Ballads, New Statesman and Society 9.389 (9 Feb 1996): 33–4. ——, ‘Nick Cave – Being a Musician with a Passionate and Shocking Talent’, New Internationalist 321 (Mar 2000): 33. Hanson, Amy, Kicking Against the Pricks: An Armchair Guide to Nick Cave (London: Helter Skelter, 2005). Jackson, Andra, ‘Band of Gold Turns It Up for a Real Camp Wedding’, The Age [Online], 16 Jan 2006, available at, accessed 13 Dec 2006. Johnston, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1995). Keats, John, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition, gen. ed. M.H. Abrams (New York; London, W.W. Norton, 1986). ——, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition, gen. ed. M.H. Abrams (New York; London, W.W. Norton, 1986). Lane, Anita, The World’s a Girl, CD single (Mute Records, 1995). McFadden (Withers), Jennie, Email to Karen Welberry, 23 Nov 2003. McLeod, Mike, ‘Being Sick on the Daffodils: Poetry and the Adolescent’, in Valerie Hoogstad and Maurice Saxby (eds), Teaching Literature to Adolescents (Melbourne: Nelson, 1988). Mifflin, Margaret, Rev. of And the Ass Saw the Angel, New York Review of Books (30 Sept 1990). O’Callaghan, Bill and Bill Findlay, Wangaratta 1959–1984: A Silver City (Wangaratta: City of Wangaratta, 1984). Packer, Steve, ‘Story of a Nag from a Warracknabeal Wag’, The Age, A2 section (18 Dec 2004): 18. Parliament of Victoria, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard): Legislative Assembly, Fifty-fourth Parliament, First Session 5 October 2000 (extract from Book 4). Reid, Ian, Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies (Aldershot; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004). Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). Sandall, Robert, ‘Nick Cave: Renaissance Man’, Word (Mar 2003). Sweeney, Kathy, ‘Seeds of Content’, The Guardian, Guide Section (30 Oct 2004): 4.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Viswanathan, Gauri, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989). Wark, McKenzie, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale: Pluto Press, 1999). Welberry, Karen, ‘Colonial and Postcolonial Deployment of “Daffodils”’, Kunapipi 19.1 (1997): 32–44. Whitlam, Gough, ‘Australian Council for the Arts, Press Statement No. 54’, 16 Feb 1973 [Online] available at: Aus_Council_Arts/, accessed 13 Dec 2006. Wordsworth, William, ‘Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, 1798, in Stephen Gill (ed.), The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). ——, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, 5th edition, gen. ed. M.H. Abrams (New York; London, W.W. Norton, 1986).

Chapter 4

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and the Production and Consumption of Masculinity Laknath Jayasinghe

Nick Cave repeatedly dances in rock stage performances. From gigs with The Boys Next Door in Melbourne, at St Kilda’s seedy Banana’s Disco in 1979 and the George Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom in 1980, to those dances with The Birthday Party at Manchester’s Hacienda and London’s Lyceum in 1983, Cave performs repertoires that, at the time, were unusual by any measure of mainstream Australian rock performance. Although his dances are usually episodic, often fleeting and largely informal, Cave frequently performed twists, turns and thrusts, in addition to sophisticated movements and pirouettes. The latter, at least, appear to be composed and executed with remarkable sensitivity and pose. These dance repertoires were part of a broader corpus of resistive rock music performance in Melbourne’s burgeoning and splintered post-punk and alternative rock music milieu. This chapter focuses on Cave’s involvement in this rock movement, in particular on some of his dance performances in what later became known, by both academics and commentators alike, as the ‘Crystal Ballroom scene’, as well as some of his dances performed with The Birthday Party at two gigs at Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub. Rock music critics, such as Vikki Riley, have only mentioned in passing Cave’s relationship with dance, most probably because Cave never claimed to be a serious stage dancer, nor is he a trained dancer. In examining Cave’s moving body in some of these performances, I argue that Cave’s dance routines create potentially deep and visceral tensions for some audiences that can be liberating in terms of gender formation and practice. It must be stressed that throughout this essay, Cave’s performative intention – though often important to this analysis – is not always the matter of concern; inevitably there is slippage at times between Cave’s performative outlook in these dances and how the dances may be read by audiences. 

Many thanks to David Carter, Graeme Turner and Joanne Tompkins for guiding with much insight and patience my MPhil research at the University of Queensland during 2003–2005. This chapter is written from that research.  Vikki Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite! Melbourne 1978–80: Punk Rock or No Punk Rock?’, in Phil Hayward (ed.), From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism (Sydney, 1992), pp. 113–29.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Cave’s dances, moreover, provoke certain questions: is there a specific politics of masculinity attached to his dances? What do these dances suggest about the changing relations between masculinity and rock music culture, and how do audiences understand them? This chapter moves toward answering these questions by focusing on recorded footage of Cave’s performances with one of the seminal Australian post-punk bands, The Birthday Party, and considering how notions of the ‘choreographed’ dimension of gender and sexuality can be used to analyse the ways in which notions of masculinity are produced, sustained and critiqued through Cave’s rock music performances. First, I analyse Cave’s dance movements on the promotional video clip for the 1981 release ‘Nick the Stripper’, a clip which former Birthday Party drummer, Phill Calvert, suggests contains representative traces of Cave’s dance repertoire in the Crystal Ballroom scene. Next, I examine filmed footage of some of Cave’s dances from mid-1982, and again in early 1983, performed with The Birthday Party at Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub. In the final section it’s argued that some of Cave’s performances may be queerly, pleasurably read by audiences. The analysis, overall, is contextualised by the broader politics of masculinity in Australian rock music and English mainstream music culture. These recorded images of Cave’s dances convey a sense of the various discourses of masculinity that choreograph Cave’s body in live performance. In doing so they articulate some of the more potent images of the performing male body in Antipodean rock culture. Admittedly, cultural critics such as Paul McDonald have pointed to the limitations of using recorded material to theorise about the performing body, arguing that while such a focus is quite feasible, it does possibly produce a restricted reading of the performance. Yet the point argued, and for which evidence is provided, is that there are certain movements in Cave’s repertoire that are representative of some of his live dance repertoires in the scene. In this way, we understand both the live performance stage and the medium of video – when analysed as viewing contexts – as spaces adjunct to the social regulation of the norms of masculinity, in particular, the norms of rock music masculinity. Gender and Choreography in Rock Music Performance In his groundbreaking essay, ‘Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor’, dance studies theorist, Jonathan Bollen, develops an original framework for thinking about how the cultural politics surrounding masculinity and queer

Robert Brokenmouth, Nick Cave: The Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures (Sydney, 1996), p. 72.  Paul McDonald, ‘Feeling and Fun: Romance, Dance and the Performing Male Body in Take That Videos’, in Sheila Whiteley (ed.), Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (London, 1997), pp. 277–94. 

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


sexualities are understood through dance performance. Bollen alerts readers to how a ‘different mode of dance-floor practice’ is often ‘premised on a different nexus of movement and pleasure’. One of his central vectors of analysis is the choreographed aspect of gender performance and I modify Bollen’s insight to help explain how stage performances such as Cave’s enact, rehearse, reiterate or conversely rework norms of rock music masculinity. Bollen’s essay examines the ‘queer kinaesthesia’ in social dance practices at gay and lesbian dance parties in Sydney during the mid-1990s. Queer kinaesthesia serves as an effective analytic tool to examine dance as a ‘coalescence of moves and [their] gendered effects’. Queer, according to him, takes on a polymorphous configuration by refusing to signal a clear gendered and sexual position. The dancers Bollen interviewed complicate – or queer – the common view that everyday genders, feminine and masculine identities for example, can be easily mapped sexually. This is the crux of what gender studies theorists, such as Judith Butler, call the sex-gender linkage. In her theorisation, Butler argues that the production of a ‘natural’ and authentic understanding of the sexed, gendered and heterosexual subject is made possible through the ‘regularized and constrained repetition of [gender] norms’. But this coupling of gender to sexuality is blurred by Bollen’s partygoers through their queer dance practices. He insists that at events such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the dance floor practices he researched do not so much ‘materialize’ the morphology of gendered bodies as ‘choreograph’ their kinesthetic capacities’ of sexuality, and this ‘choreography’ demands an analysis – a reality-registering apparatus – that cannot so much ‘see’ kinesthetic habituation as ‘feel’ it. For kinesthesia cannot be read off the surface of the body in terms of matter, shape, or form. It must be read as movement, in the ongoingness of movement, and in how that movement feels.

Queer dancers at the Mardi Gras attempt to deregulate the cultural constraints that pattern everyday gender behaviour: the social compulsion that ‘this’ gender will lead to ‘that’ sexuality. So on the dance floor, the often culturally-determined and socially-sanctioned binaries of masculine/feminine, gay/straight and hetero/ homosexual are left open, queered, to be (mis)interpreted by audiences of the dances. Bollen gives an account of dances in gay and lesbian spaces, though ‘queer’  Jonathan Bollen, ‘Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage, (Madison, WI, 2001), pp. 285–314.  Ibid., p. 312.  Ibid., p. 304.  Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York, 1993), p. 10.  Bollen, ‘Queer Kinesthesia’, p. 309.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


need not be confined to this narrow purview. Queer can account ‘for the expression of all aspects of non-straight cultural production and reception’;10 therefore, it works against the cultural modes that reproduce the more repressive aspects of heterosexuality. This has important implications for this analysis as it accepts that heterosexual men such as Cave may participate on stage in the breaking down of the bounds of ‘normal’ masculine behaviours in rock music culture. Further, Bollen’s frame of queer kinesthesia sees movement predominantly located within a regulated heterosexually-oriented system of gender behaviour, registering ‘what matters about a body in terms of the body’s experience of moving, its capacity for action, its choreographic repertoire’.11 This ‘choreographic’ element of bodily movement forms the kernel for analysing dance practice in this discussion. It emphasises that gendered choreography in dance performance is relational; it is cognisant of other moving bodies in any given space and the cultural meanings of gender circumscribed by these bodies. The recognition of Cave’s performances as gendered choreography must be understood within the frame of a particular genre of Australian pub rock, Oz rock, which dominated the domestic popular music landscape throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The mainstream Australian pub rock culture of the 1970s and early 1980s was often choreographed by traces of Johnny O’Keefe’s ‘tonic of wildness’, a phrase used by historian Raymond Evans to describe how in 1950s and 1960s Australia, O’Keefe’s brand of rock ’n’ roll performance incited audiences to go ‘berserk’.12 In the Oz rock culture of the 1970s and 1980s, the aggressive wild child rock standard was recycled in images of the drugs, alcohol and sexual overindulgences of commercially-oriented rock musicians such as Rose Tattoo’s Gary ‘Angry’ Anderson, Cold Chisel’s Jimmy Barnes, INXS’s Michael Hutchence and Marc Hunter from Dragon.13 It was also exemplified by the rock music sounds linked to entrepreneur, Michael Gudinski, and his label, Mushroom, and similar rock sounds heard at inner-city venues in Melbourne (such as Martini’s in the suburb of Carlton) or the city’s outer-suburban pub rock circuit (for example, at venues such as the Village Green in Glen Waverley).14


Alexander Doty, ‘There’s Something Queer Here’, in Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (eds), Out In Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays in Popular Culture (London, 1995), p. 72. 11 Bollen, ‘Queer Kinesthesia’, p. 301. 12 Raymond Evans, ‘The Tonic of Wildness: Johnny O’Keefe and Me’, Perfect Beat, 5.1 (2000): 56–66. 13 Stephen Alomes, ‘An Austerican Culture? Australian Rock from Johnny O’Keefe to Jimmy Barnes’, Island Magazine, 30 (1987): 58–61; Mandy Dyson, ‘Renegotiating the Australian Legend: “Khe Sanh” and the Jimmy Barnes Stage Persona’, Limina, 4 (1998): 59–68. 14 Gillian Upton, The George: St Kilda Life and Times (Melbourne, 2001), p. 103; Peter Cox, Real Wild Child: Teen Riots to Generation X (Sydney, 1994), p. 32.

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


Importantly, the image of the Oz rock pub carried a ‘gendered sense of place’,15 and some argue that it functioned mainly as a site of working-class masculine retreat from ‘the dominant ideology of family and suburbia’.16 Moreover, it spoke to working-class concerns that developed as large-scale deregulation of the Australian macroeconomy began during the 1980s. Insecurities emerged as domestic industry and capital and working-class labour were exposed to the potential shocks of the global economy. Tara Brabazon outlines the cultural anxieties along which Oz rock was experienced by its (mainly working-class) fans in her detailed analysis of Australian popular music of the 1970s and 1980s, writing that ‘the spaces between the notes’ of Oz rock required the ‘national narratives of a hostile landscape to access … ideologies of masculinity, work, class and alcohol’.17 Ideologically, then, Oz rock was politically conservative in its cultural-nationalist function, making it vital to late-1970s and early-1980s Australian popular culture. It was the desire to escape this prevailing music scene and its attendant value system that drove the development of punk and alternative rock in Australia.18 Gillian Upton, in her history of St Kilda’s George Hotel, suggests that for many in the Crystal Ballroom set, the ‘larger enemy’ was the ‘moribund culture outside’ the Ballroom’s walls.19 Chris McAuliffe, researching the Melbourne punk scene of the 1970s and 1980s, argues that the scene was focused on the creation of a new lifestyle more than it was on any form of organised politics.20 The rail against the ‘enemy’, therefore, was levelled at both the perceived constraints of the middle class (from which many participants came) and what was felt by many to be the crass, commercial and nationalist Oz rock pub culture scene, a rock culture that in many respects was additionally encoded as ‘relentlessly macho’ and homophobic.21 If aggressive and hostile masculinities defined the mainstream pub rock circuit in Melbourne, then anti-normative codes of masculinity signalled to some extent the subculture of punk and alternative rock. The Crystal Ballroom scene was no


Cressida Miles, ‘Spatial Politics: A Gendered Sense of Place’, in Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne and Justin O’Connor (eds), The Clubcultures Reader: Readings in Popular Cultural Studies (Oxford, 1997), p. 66. 16 John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner, Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Popular Culture (Sydney, 1987), p. 6. 17 Tara Brabazon, Tracking the Jack: A Retracing of the Antipodes (Sydney, 2000), pp. 100, 102. 18 Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the Word Unite!’, p. 118; Clinton Walker, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music 1977–1991 (Sydney, 1996), pp. 15, 52. 19 Upton, The George, p. 103. 20 Chris McAuliffe, ‘Guerrillas, Poseurs and Nomads: The Politics of the AvantGarde in Art and Music’, in Xavier Pons (ed.), Departures: How Australia Re-Invents Itself (Melbourne, 2002), pp. 192–201. 21 Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite!’, p. 121.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


exception.22 Male performers in the scene, including Cave and others such as Simon Bonney from Crime and the City Solution, incorporated transgressive masculinities and sexualities into their performances, thus flagging the subculture as an ‘unmanly’ site for rock performance, at least in comparison to the spaces and attitudes of Oz pub rock. Cave, Gender and Dance: Australia Cave’s choreographic repertoire in the promotional music video for The Birthday Party release ‘Nick the Stripper’ reveals many of the manoeuvres that he performed in his onstage dances at the Crystal Ballroom and elsewhere. Phill Calvert, the band’s drummer at the time, affirms this with his interpretation of Cave’s dance in the clip: Calvert overwhelmingly sees Cave’s dance as the parodic spectacle of the staged rock persona.23 Mick Harvey, guitarist for The Birthday Party, says that the song itself is about the perverted form of the singer, its parody ‘is in the great tradition of rock and roll’s self-aggrandisement’.24 This parodying aspect of the traditional rock spectacle was a common feature of The Birthday Party’s performance repertoire.25 The clip, directed by Paul Goldman (who has since become a long-time collaborator with Cave), begins with the band performing inside a circus tent, with a medium shot of the shirtless but trousered Cave jitterbugging shortly before the first verse of the song. Throughout the first verse he ducks and weaves his body in front of the camera. As it concludes, Cave performs a half-pirouette. He has the grace and poise of a danseuse. Immediately following this manoeuvre, there is a fractured edit that signals the shifting location of the action. The narrative moves out of the tent and into a landscape of sheer depravity, a space described by one of Cave’s biographers, Ian Johnston, as an ‘atmosphere for a carnival of the obscene and the absurd’.26 In this ‘depraved’ setting, Cave is clothed only in a nappy. Here, Cave does not so much dance as wastedly stumble through the debauched crowd. At the launch of the third verse, Cave performs a manoeuvre that closely resembles the sashaying and semi-flamenco style of Crime and the City Solution’s Simon Bonney. It is a style that, at some level, according to Birthday Party guitarist, Rowland Howard, made an impact on Cave’s approach to performances at the time. Importantly, it demonstrated that being on stage was, in part, a theatrical performance and it also showed Cave that a ‘gig could be an event’, that there could be a broader purpose attached to playing.27 Later in the sequence, Cave 22

Ibid., pp. 116–21. Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 72. 24 The South Bank Show, ep. 607: Nick Cave, TV Documentary (UK TV, 2003). 25 Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 45. 26 Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1996), p. 71. 27 Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 32. 23

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


deftly pirouettes through the wild videoscape and just before the clip concludes he jitterbugs again, this time within the context of a homoerotic exchange with Howard. The two men move apart only after embracing and kissing each other on the lips. In Mark Williams’s review of the clip’s DVD release, Cave’s dancing style is described as ‘prancing about’,28 a remark that dismisses the performative aspect of Cave’s gestures. Contrary to Williams’s analysis, I read Cave’s dancing body in the clip’s narrative as an attempt to counter what performance studies theorist José Esteban Muñoz calls ‘the stream of a crushing heteronormative tide’.29 There is a certain pleasure derived by viewing Cave performing against Australian rock music masculinities. The wasted and almost defiant form of Cave’s anti-normative masculinity is apparent in the many close-ups of Cave’s cock-sure body: thin, oblique and non-muscular. This is not to suggest that Cave’s body is decidedly ‘unmasculine’ but rather that it’s transformed by a preening narcissism in the clip. Goldman’s direction ensures that the viewer’s gaze is firmly held on Cave’s body. It is a gaze that moves against the traditional representation of the male body in Australian rock music culture, and in Australian media culture more broadly;30 in the latter, the camera historically has constructed a viewing position that focuses on the actions performed by the rock performer’s body, rather than explicitly directing the viewer’s gaze toward the male body itself, in order to objectify it. Further, the only area of Cave’s body that is clothed-over in the ‘obscene’ and ‘absurd’ landscape is the very area of the body where gender is traditionally determined. There are no apparent signs of gendered clothing on Cave’s body as he dances through the hellish landscape. Rather, the nappy leads to a reading of Cave’s body as ambiguously gendered; or, at the very least, as a refusal to publicly signal normative masculine identity. As such, the nappy creates what could be called an ‘eroticised surface’ on Cave’s dancing body,31 one that constitutes, in the words of Eve Sedgwick, ‘the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, or anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made)

Mark Williams, ‘The Birthday Party – Review of DVD: Pleasure Heads Must Burn’ [Online], available at, accessed 26 Oct 2004. 29 José Esteban Muñoz, ‘Gesture, Ephemera, and Queer Feeling: Approaching Kevin Aviance’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI, 2001), p. 433. 30 David Buchbinder, Performance Anxieties: Re-producing Masculinity (Sydney, 1998). 31 Ramsay Burt ‘Dissolving in Pleasure: The Threat of the Queer Male Dancing Body’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI, 2001), p. 226. 28

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


to signify monolithically’.32 The nappy queers Cave’s dancing body. It works as a site which disrupts the idea that a particular sexed body – male or female – leads to a particular gender configuration (masculine or feminine respectively) and that this, inevitably, orients to a specific sexuality, usually assumed to be heterosexual. Coupled with Cave’s dancing body, a slight and fragile masculine build, the nappy prompts the viewer to find alternative erotic possibilities of both Cave’s unexposed and exposed body. Through his dance in the ‘Nick the Stripper’ clip, Cave’s body resists the social norms and cultural regulations that largely policed the boundaries of the thoroughly masculine and heterosexually-oriented Australian pub rock music industry.33 Cave’s queered embodiment in the clip is further amplified by the jitterbug that he performs while circling Howard. Cave’s queer dance around Howard was part of a repertoire routinely performed between the two artists, often to draw attention to both the absurdity of the hypermasculine heterosexuality that existed within broader Australian rock culture and the sublimated ‘gay schtick’ written into the onstage gender dynamic between, say, the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the 1960s and 1970s.34 Cave’s jitterbug with Howard, furnished with a kiss, simultaneously – and ironically – emphasises and critiques the classic homoerotic aspect of rock performances that Oz rock sought to deny. Ensconced within the parody, however, there also seems to be a genuine show of affection between Cave and Howard that queers the idea of normative homosexual sexuality as well. Cave’s kiss demonstrates that it is not only two homosexual men, but also two ostensibly heterosexual men, who can incorporate the common signs of queer masculinities into their everyday behaviour. When viewed within and through the prism of Oz rock culture’s strident heterosexuality and, relatedly, through its subtle homophobia, the kiss functions as an element of gender and sexual transgression.35 Yet this particular homoerotic kiss is not merely a performance strategy whose purpose is ‘shock value’. In his later performances with the Bad Seeds, Cave often kissed guitarist Blixa Bargeld on the lips, a measure of the mutual respect and admiration between these two friends. In this sense, Cave’s kiss works at the level of the everyday. Nevertheless, to contemporary viewers of the clip, as well as to those who viewed it upon its initial release, such an act between the two rock musicians largely renders Australian versions of male heterosexuality strange. A kiss between Cave and Howard queers the hegemony of a more stridently masculinised Australian rock mainstream.


Quoted in Paul B. Franklin, ‘The Terpsichorean Tramp: “Unmanly” Movement in the Early Films of Charlie Chaplin’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI, 2001), pp. 35–72. 33 Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite!’, p. 121. 34 Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, pp. 91, 118. 35 Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford, 1991), p. 25.

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


As an artist and performer, then, Cave maintained a structured and knowing approach to dance performance. In his often-rapturous gestures his dance is simultaneously critique and performance. The performative outlook of both The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party at one level was born from, as Cave biographer Robert Brokenmouth puts it, a lack of respect ‘whatsoever for the sexually aggressive oz-rocker’.36 At every possible musical and performance opportunity in Australia, Cave and his fellow band members were keen to assault the sensibilities of ‘audiences intent on beer, chords, beer, chicks, and beer’.37 But in the early 1980s, particularly after The Birthday Party’s relocation from Melbourne to London, Cave invested his dances with a harder edge, and his choreographic repertoire was frequently sewn together by a series of spectacular phallic thrusts that punctuated his onstage performances. Cave, Gender and Dance: England In England, Cave’s dancing functions to question not so much the stifling hegemony of Oz rock masculinities as what was perceived by many as the debauched state of English rock and popular music culture in the early 1980s, encapsulated by the fey and effete styles of British ‘new wave’ pop acts such as Duran Duran and Adam and the Ants. Moreover, Cave’s dances arguably reference the experience of the band’s ‘crushing revelation of disillusionment’ upon first arriving in London. Looking on from middle-class Melbourne, members of The Birthday Party had imagined London to possess a ‘romantic nocturnal lifestyle of performance’; once the band arrived in England, the London they had envisaged was no more than an ‘intellectual fantasy’.38 Frustrated with what they saw as the apathy of local audiences, they issued a challenge to sycophantic English fans who completely misunderstood the band’s critical, parodic and intellectual edge.39 Cave’s performative response was to incorporate into his dance an aggressive choreography in order to ‘excite people and confuse their normal way of thinking’.40 It was a parodically hypermasculine style that directly challenged audiences to respond with an equal intensity. So, in his performance of ‘A Dead Song’ at Manchester’s Hacienda in July 1982, Cave falls on his back, centre stage, and proceeds to thrust his pelvis upwards, rhythmically, sexually. At the same gig, in the performance of ‘Junkyard’, there is a heightening both in the frequency and in the exaggeration of Cave’s spasmodic

Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 59. Ibid. 38 Ibid., p. 80. 39 Ibid., p. 80. 40 Cave, quoted in Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, pp. 147, 162. 36



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

pelvic thrusts. In early 1983, again at a gig at the Hacienda, he performs similar moves, as well as slower hip grinds.41 These dance moves are regulated within the context of the frequently violent and often dissonant performances that later characterised many Birthday Party gigs. Quoting rock journalist, Clinton Walker, to describe Cave’s performances in the early 1980s, performance theorist Susan Broadhurst writes that ‘[d]anger and glamour were crucial to Cave’s image … It was quite apparent to everyone that going to see the “Birthday Party in their heyday” was “like sitting in a bad corner waiting for an accident to happen”’.42 One fan paints the sense of excitement and unease that characterised the performance of this ‘half-man, half-unearthly creature’ in England later that year: ‘Nick dashes across the stage, throwing his body into another contorted primitive dance … [he is] a mass of guttural growling, screaming and howling, reaching from the depths of his twisted, exhausted skinny body’.43 The most (seemingly) subdued member of The Birthday Party, Mick Harvey, recounts that a ‘Birthday Party gig comprised a very volatile mixture of people, the subsequent potential for physical conditions to occur was very high. I think I got tense before we went on [stage] because I never knew what was going to happen, or whether someone was going to get seriously hurt’.44 Cave’s dance style with The Birthday Party can be understood more deeply in terms of an experimental performative arm of marginal performance that Broadhurst provisionally assembles under the heading of ‘liminal performance’.45 The concept of liminal performance relies heavily on the purchase of Victor Turner’s anthropological term ‘limen’, a concept speaking of a certain hybridised and marginal space. Audiences who experience liminal performances witness the possibility of ‘potential forms, structures, conjectures and desires’.46 Acts that are liminal emphasise artistic performance usually, but not always, of the body: ‘a certain sense of excitement is generated … a feeling almost of awe somewhat akin to discomfort is created’.47 Cave’s performances with The Birthday Party clearly fall into this performative mode by virtue of his gender dissonant choreography of thrusts, grinds and twists, which at times was undoubtedly shocking, provocative and stimulating. Simultaneously, as evidenced by Brokenmouth’s transcripts of interviews with fans, they also induced a sense of disquiet, unease and tension, as well as pleasure, within audiences.48 41 The Birthday Party, Pleasure Heads Must Burn, DVD of various rock music video clips and live concert footage (London, 2003). 42 Susan Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London, 1999), p. 153. 43 Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 125. 44 Ibid., p. 122. 45 Broadhurst, Liminal Acts, p. 1. 46 Ibid., p. 12. 47 Ibid., p. 13. 48 Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, pp. 125–7.

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


Ambiguity and Pleasure in Cave’s Rock Performances The broad politics of masculinity in Cave’s work – his confronting and disturbingly ‘erotic’ body in the ‘Nick the Stripper’ clip, the homoeroticism that was written into some of his dance manoeuvres, and his pelvic thrusts and hip grind – point towards the possibility for more progressive gender relations in rock culture. Broadhurst argues that in Cave’s work the political takes the form of a self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining statement, almost giving the effect of saying something while at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said. The effect is to ‘highlight’ or ‘subvert’ and the mode is therefore a ‘knowing’ or even ‘ironic’ one.49

Cave’s pelvic thrusts, for example, work as a sexually parodic performance of the phallic power of musicians in a ‘real rock band’,50 in much the same way as Cave’s queerly choreographed dance with Howard works to critique the classic male-bonding ‘schtick’ of mainstream Oz rock performers. But in this ‘self-contradictory’ method of performance, there is a paradox. As Broadhurst writes, one of the main features of Cave’s performances seems to be his partial commitment to ‘duplicity’, an upholding of the very structures of masculinity that he seeks to disrupt. In short, Cave cannot escape the mainstream rock masculinity he seeks to overturn.51 That said, the more progressive qualities of Cave’s work can override the more duplicitous qualities of this mode of performance critique.52 In another context, but with a shared interest, Stan Hawkins shows how the themes of ‘polysemy’ and ‘ambiguity’ in the stage performances by ‘the artist known as’ Prince in the 1980s helped open up the strategy of self-parody through bodily movement, hence exposing the plasticity of gender.53 Relatedly, Bollen uncovers the ‘girly poofter’ and ‘cool dyke’ dance styles that afforded queer dancers at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parties in the 1990s the pleasurable indulgence to ‘escape from the everyday regulation of gender’.54 Similar to these varying perspectives from different musical subcultures I argue that ‘ambiguity’ and ‘pleasure’ are centralising themes around which ideas of masculinity in Cave’s dance performances can be arranged. The reading of Cave’s gendered choreographies as ambiguous is established mainly through his queer gender construction. At gigs with The Birthday Party at Broadhurst, Liminal Acts, p. 156. Brokenmouth, Nick Cave, p. 145. 51 Philip Auslander, Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (Ann Arbor, MI, 1994), p. 31. 52 Broadhurst, Liminal Acts, p. 156. 53 Stan Hawkins, Settling the Pop Score: Pop Texts and Identity Politics (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 186–8. 54 Bollen, ‘Queer Kinesthesia’, p. 308. 49


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


the Crystal Ballroom and elsewhere in Melbourne, the performative markers of marginalised genders and sexualities are realised through the grand gestures of effeminacy; later, especially once the band moves to London, Cave’s gestures are increasingly laced with the traces of parodic hypermasculinity. Cave’s authorship of masculinity, in this regard, parallels that of Prince, whose mobile gender position is characterised, according to Hawkins, through a ‘phallic parading’ which serves to ‘spell out his playfulness’.55 Cave’s adoption of the performance markers that signal a highly labile masculine identity reflects the playful and flamboyant understanding of the political that was integral to many punk and alternative rock acts that emerged from Melbourne during the late 1970s, including the scene that developed around the Crystal Ballroom.56 Cave wilfully, performatively, uses his body to make particular statements about rock music masculinity, and, similar to Prince, he ‘inscribes a calculated control of gender ambiguity’ in his dance moves.57 Ambiguity, in this sense, is achieved by Cave’s engagement with particularly powerful forms of queerness that dissolve the binaries of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ underpinning mainstream rock cultures.58 Writing about ‘male queering in mainstream pop’, Hawkins explains that ‘gender-bending spectacles’ – of which Cave’s onstage pirouettes and balletic manoeuvres form a part – often ‘wrangle with rigid inscriptions of fixed male identity’ that audiences may bring to certain viewing contexts.59 Cave’s dances were usually performed in a rock scene peripheral to the mainstream rock culture; and in the latter rock cultures, be it the space of Oz rock, or the English popular music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, the transgression of normative gender tropes would be more keenly felt. Yet it is clear from evidence presented by critics such as Riley that participants within the Crystal Ballroom scene were more willing than those in the broader rock culture to play with the surface markers of gender for critical, perhaps even pleasurable, purposes.60 These plays with queerness by Cave heighten for audiences the ambivalence of his sexuality, and they effectively ‘highlight a more ambiguous masculinity’.61 In some of Cave’s performance moves, such as his nappy dance in the ‘Nick the Stripper’ clip, or in his recurring onstage kiss with Howard, audiences locate these ambiguous queerly-read tensions within a masculine identity that oscillates between the poles of fixity and fluidity. Cave’s hyperbolic dance style Hawkins, Settling the Pop Score, p. 186. McAuliffe, ‘Guerrillas, Poseurs and Nomads’, p. 192. 57 Ibid. 58 Ashley Dawson, ‘Do Doc Martens Have a Special Smell?’, in Kevin Dettmar and William Richey (eds), Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics (New York, 1999), pp. 125–43. 59 Stan Hawkins, ‘On Male Queering in Mainstream Pop’, in Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga (eds), Queering the Popular Pitch (London, 2006), p. 282. 60 Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite!’, pp. 121–5. 61 Hawkins, ‘On Male Queering’, p. 282. 55 56

Nick Cave, Dance Performance and Masculinity


moves from effeminacy to that of parodic hypermasculinity, simultaneously incorporating the seemingly disparate elements of earnestness, parody, gender fixity and queerness. Through this strategy of destabilisation, gender ambiguity can also be pleasurable. The notion of pleasure is linked to one of the most important ways of thinking about rock music performance, namely audience reception. In the examples already discussed, the queer pleasures for both Cave and audience in the Crystal Ballroom scene are largely ‘contra-straight’ in that they are not fuelled by queer desire. Instead, these pleasures are fed by what popular culture critic Alexander Doty has called a form of queer participation that can be enjoyed by heterosexuals, ‘straight queerness’.62 The strong pleasures afforded by witnessing the ‘erotic surfaces’ on Cave’s moving body, for example, can activate – or further, affirm – the ostensibly straight male fan’s queered sense of masculinity in relation to the harder-edged masculine subject positions associated with artists performing in the broader Australian rock milieu. Importantly, straight queer masculinity is represented here as a particular nexus of pleasure. Specifically, these are queer pleasures that enable scene participants to ‘experience [a] vicarious if temporary empowerment’ in their everyday gender negotiations.63 An awareness or appreciation of, maybe even an affinity with, Cave’s performatively queered masculinity holds the potential to engender a sense of pleasurable affinity. Straight queer masculinity, at root, is an alternative from, and a blurring of, the ‘terrible simplicity of male heterosexual experience and the crude simplicity of homocentric narratives’.64 Pleasure for audiences resides in the knowledge that the hegemony of these normative forms of rock masculinity – and their associations with a thuggish, crude and unsophisticated rawness – slowly dissolves, or is at least temporarily disrupted. Pleasure for the audiences of the performances I have examined is two-fold. First, by audiences ‘eroticising’ the surface of Cave’s non-normative masculine physique, and by understanding the homoeroticism written into some of his dance moves, there is the possibility of challenging the popular images of masculinity that circulate in rock and popular music culture. Pushing off from this point, the idea of straight queerness allows heterosexual participants, such as Cave, other members of The Birthday Party and straight audiences alike, to imagine a more romantic notion of their subculture. It is indeed a notion which Riley, echoing Upton’s earlier comment about the scene at the George Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, describes as one where the artist is ‘at war with the outside world into which he didn’t fit’.65 Pleasure through Cave’s ambiguous performances of straight queerness is intensified for fans at an actual Birthday Party gig in the late 1970s, 62

Doty, ‘There’s Something Queer Here’, pp. 71–90. Ibid., p. 78. 64 Paul Smith, ‘Eastwood Bound’, in Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson (eds), Constructing Masculinity (New York, 1995), pp. 77–97. 65 Riley, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite!’, p. 123. 63


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

as well as for audiences viewing Cave’s performances on video many years later; as remarked earlier, such viewing contexts are adjuncts to the social regulation of the norms of rock music masculinities. Therefore, pleasure exists for viewers of Cave’s dances – then and now – in the ambiguous and precarious space beyond the regulative parameters of rock music’s more repressive forms of masculinity. Conclusion Cave’s queer performances recruit dance to question prevailing mainstream Antipodean and English rock masculinities. Cave was highly aware of the ‘performative potential’66 of his body and used it in ways to highlight the absurdities of the more socially regressive aspects of normative rock masculinity, and, in Australia at least, their articulations to the brand of cultural nationalism associated with Oz rock. Viewed through the primary analytic categories of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘pleasure’, Cave’s dance performances simultaneously thrill and provoke audiences, and they draw upon constructions of gender and sexual identity which are ultimately diffused by the underlying ambivalence of straight queerness.

66 This is a term that Paul Franklin uses to describe the dancing body of Charlie Chaplin in the Tramp’s early films. See Franklin, ‘The Terpsichorean Tramp’, pp. 35–72.

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Bibliography Alomes, Stephen, ‘An Austerican Culture? – Australian Rock from Johnny O’Keefe to Jimmy Barnes’, Island Magazine, 30 (1987): 58–61. Auslander, Philip, Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994). The Birthday Party, Pleasure Heads Must Burn, DVD (London: Cherry Red Records, 2003). Bollen, Jonathan, ‘Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Brabazon, Tara, Tracking the Jack: A Retracing of the Antipodes (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000). Broadhurst, Susan, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London: Cassell, 1999). Brokenmouth, Robert, Nick Cave: The Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures (Sydney: Omnibus, 1996). Buchbinder, David, Performance Anxieties: Re-producing Masculinity (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998). Burt, Ramsay, ‘Dissolving in Pleasure: The Threat of the Queer Male Dancing Body’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993). Cox, Peter, Real Wild Child: Teen Riots to Generation X (Sydney: Powerhouse, 1994). Dawson, Ashley, ‘Do Doc Martens Have a Special Smell?’, in Kevin Dettmar and William Richey (eds), Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). Desmond, Jane (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Dollimore, Jonathan, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991). Doty, Alexander, ‘There’s Something Queer Here’, in Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (eds), Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays in Popular Culture (London: Cassell, 1995). Dyson, Mandy, ‘Renegotiating the Australian Legend: “Khe Sanh” and the Jimmy Barnes Stage Persona’, Limina, 4 (1998): 59–68. Evans, Raymond, ‘The Tonic of Wildness: Johnny O’Keefe and Me’, Perfect Beat, 5.1 (2000): 56–66. Fiske, John, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner, Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Popular Culture (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987). Franklin, Paul B., ‘The Terpsichorean Tramp: “Unmanly” Movement in the Early Films of Charlie Chaplin’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires:


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Hawkins, Stan, Settling the Pop Score: Pop Texts and Identity Politics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002). ——, ‘On Male Queering in Mainstream Pop’, in Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga (eds), Queering the Popular Pitch (London: Routledge, 2006). Johnston, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1996). McAuliffe, Chris, ‘Guerrillas, Poseurs and Nomads: The Politics of the AvantGarde in Art and Music’, in Xavier Pons (ed.), Departures: How Australia Re-Invents Itself (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002). McDonald, Paul, ‘Feeling and Fun: Romance, Dance and the Performing Male Body in Take That Videos’, in Sheila Whiteley (ed.), Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (London: Routledge, 1997). Miles, Cressida, ‘Spatial Politics: A Gendered Sense of Place’, in Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne and Justin O’Connor (eds), The Clubcultures Reader: Readings in Popular Cultural Studies (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). Muñoz, José Esteban, ‘Gesture, Ephemera, and Queer Feeling: Approaching Kevin Aviance’, in Jane Desmond (ed.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Riley, Vikki, ‘Death Rockers of the World Unite! Melbourne 1978–80: Punk Rock or No Punk Rock?’, in Phil Hayward (ed.), From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992). Smith, Paul, ‘Eastwood Bound’, in Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson (eds), Constructing Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 1995). The South Bank Show, ep. 607: Nick Cave, TV Documentary (UK TV, 2003). Upton, Gillian, The George: St Kilda Life and Times (Melbourne: Venus Bay, 2001). Walker, Clinton, Stranded: The Secret History of Australian Independent Music 1977–1991 (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1996). Williams, Mark. ‘The Birthday Party – Review of DVD: Pleasure Heads Must Burn’ [Online], available at, accessed 26 Oct, 2004.

PART II Intersections

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Chapter 5

An Audience for Antagonism: Nick Cave and Doomed Celebrity Chris Bilton

‘Here we go again’ sneers Nick Cave on The Birthday Party’s incendiary single ‘Nick the Stripper’. Amidst the twisted exhibitionism of the song’s title character, accompanied by a thoroughly sludgy groove and a barrage of angular horn blasts, the line drips with a slick film of greasy antipathy. Like an ironic mantra, its repetition signals the apathy, boredom and disgust that Cave channels to undermine the stale traditions of rock music and establish The Birthday Party as one of the most confrontational bands to emerge from the early 1980s post-punk scene. The line itself is inclusive; the ‘we’ implicating both the performer and audience equally in the spectacle of celebrity. Although this inclusion is in keeping with P. David Marshall’s concept of the communal or collective celebration between the audience and performer in a pop concert setting, Cave and The Birthday Party exploited the relationship in order to antagonise the very notion of popularity and rock celebrity. Here we go again indeed. Unlike the more abstract relationship between celebrity and audience where the performer is elevated rather than engaged, Marshall argues in Celebrity and Power, that the authenticity (real or perceived) is what gives power to the pop music celebrity. Cave seems to embody both aspects – conscious of his elevated state, but also intent on authenticity. Marshall goes on to explain that pop music is the one art form closest to a living audience, and exerts considerable personal influence simply by proximity of a live concert setting. Challenging their audiences to engage directly with the performance, and essentially becoming performers themselves, the closeness of a Birthday Party concert was inescapable. By outright attacking (physically, conceptually, musically, sonically and verbally) their own audiences, The Birthday Party’s act, and Cave’s in particular, was one that uncompromisingly challenged the very definition of performer, audience, singer, frontman and even rock music. But for Cave and The Birthday Party, finding an audience for their  The Birthday Party, ‘Nick the Stripper’, Prayers on Fire, CD (Mute Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power (Minneapolis, MN, 1997), p. 193.  Chris Rojek, ‘The Psychology of Achieved Celebrity’, in P. David Marshall (ed.), The Celebrity Culture Reader (London; New York, 2006), p. 611.  Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1996), p. 79.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


antagonism was as much their own construction as a circumstantial inevitability. The band’s penchant for drinking and drugging themselves into a state that rendered performances as incorrigibly invigorating as they were sonically inexplicable could almost be seen as a form of anti-art. Not unlike Andy Warhol’s fascination with car crashes, as Ian Johnston has documented in Bad Seed, Birthday Party shows were a celebrated calamity. But at the same time, Cave’s confrontational punk tendencies were paired with the romantic clichés of suffering artist and heroin junkie lead singer, à la Rimbaud and Nico respectively. Consequently, Cave the artist was often shadowed by an equally infamous persona. His flair for extreme performance and substance abuse attracted an audience expectant of its fatal conclusion: his own demise. Headlines like ‘A Man Called Horse’, ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ and ‘Kicking the Pricks’ topped sensational articles focusing almost solely on his addiction like so much tabloid fodder. This extreme fall from grace can be characterised as doomed celebrity. In discussion about his recent exhibition exploring Warhol’s focus on celebrity and death entitled Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Death and Disasters 1962–1964, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg explained the connection saying, ‘[Warhol] really understood that celebrity was in its own way a disaster. He was very astute about who he was and what that meant. Celebrity equals fame equals death’. Similarly, Cave’s work frequently admits that the potential for celebrity carries an equal potential for death. Yet despite his tendency towards a lifestyle destined for tragedy, Cave did not burn out at the simultaneous peak of his addiction and artistic output. Throughout his career, from The Birthday Party to the recent Grinderman project, Cave has instead cultivated this paradoxical image, courting popularity while simultaneously dismembering it in theory and disregarding it in practice; his lyrics spilling over with tales of self-destructive performances, desperate audiences and a violently addictive bond between the two. Consequently, the relationship between death and celebrity represents both the burden of his position as rock singer, and the freedom to manipulate this archetype in whatever way he sees fit. Cave’s fame has an existential quality to it; free of constraint and yet ultimately bound to the conventions of the pop system. So it is without surprise that over a quarter-century into his career, Cave has not only transcended the fate of doomed celebrity, but continues to dissemble the myth from within a widely acknowledged, even top ten-charting popular perspective. From his unlikely yet successful collaboration with pop princess Kylie 

Ibid., p. 4. Johannes Beck and Maximilan Dax, The Life and Music of Nick Cave: An Illustrated Biography (Berlin, 1999), p. 51.  Rachel Giese, ‘Death Star: Celebrity and Violence Collide in David Cronenberg’s Andy Warhol Exhibit’, 5 Jul 2006 [Online], available at cronenberg.html, accessed 29 May 2008. 

An Audience for Antagonism


Minogue to creating a monstrous mid-life ruckus with Grinderman, Cave’s ability to antagonise is wholly ingrained in his artistic persona. Within his lyrics and performances, the problem of doomed celebrity is expressed through four major themes: the confrontation between audience and performer; a predisposition to parody; the severity of misinterpretation; and cheating celebrity death. This chapter will explore the way Cave’s artistic control over his own persona addresses the problem of doomed celebrity and how it figures into his enduring and seemingly impenetrable position as a genuine living legend. An Audience for Antagonism – The Paradox of Performance A proper Birthday Party concert is a sacrilegious entertainment about entertainment, embarrassing only those who expect some purity of intention on a stage. In the guilty world of modern pop, they appal by revelling in the pain of artifice – the desperate drive of will to emotion through exhibition.

Barney Hoskyns’s review of a 1982 Birthday Party concert illuminates the paradox of their power: that shows were as much about the possibility of chaos and catastrophe as they were an opportunity for the band to play their songs. By sacrificing their own performance to the intensity of engagement, they exerted a degree of control over the fate of their own success. But while Cave and the band pushed to intensify their performance – often doing so right out into the audience and with their own fists – the violence and confrontation became synonymous with the experience of a Birthday Party concert. Exaggerating their instability helped establish the audience’s expectation for more of the same. But the allure of their aesthetic begged its inevitable conclusion: the annihilation of the performer. In Cave’s lyrics, he is acutely aware of both the intrigue and the pitfalls of this kind of annihilating performance. ‘Sonny’s Burning’ (1983), with its immolation overtones deals specifically with the undeniable attraction of an artist treading on the edge of self-destruction in a live performance. Sonny’s act, which is likened to a ‘bright erotic star’,10 pairs the instantaneous physicality of the performer with the surreal implication that he is in fact on fire. In a twisted play on words, the speaker praises Sonny’s performance because he ‘lights up the proceedings/and raises the temperature’11 both figuratively and literally. However, it is the speaker

Barney Hoskyns, ‘Primal Pain at the Psychos’ Party: The Birthday Party at the Venue, London’, New Musical Express, 13 Mar 1982, archived at http://www.rocksbackpages. com/article.html?ArticleID=1569, accessed 3 Jun 2008.  Johnston, Bad Seed, p. 102. 10 The Birthday Party, ‘Sonny’s Burning’, Mutiny/The Bad Seed, CD (Mute Records, 1983). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 11 Ibid.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


who introduces the act with the line, ‘Have you seen how Sonny’s burning?’12 This immediately foregrounds the spectator’s perspective and illustrates that it is not the performance, but the need for some kind of proxy immolation that attracts the audience’s attention – evident in the lines ‘But it can get so cold in here / And he gives off such an evil heat’ and ‘Now fire and flowers both consume me’.13 The fact that we are given the speaker’s point of view and not Sonny’s actual artistic statement illustrates how the audience’s expectation, their interpretation and their recounting, overshadows the artist’s intent. While ‘Sonny’s Burning’ lends an insight into the immediacy of Cave’s expected artistic and physical demise, it also underlines a larger theme of the relationship between performer and audience. Cave develops this theme through songs that seem directed at the audience in an attempt to both reflect and deflect their automatic adoration, namely ‘King Ink’ (1981) and ‘Nick the Stripper’ (1981). When read together, these two songs illustrate both sides of the antagonistic audience/performer equation. ‘King Ink’ presents the artist as insecure, sometimes helpless, and yet lashing out to challenge the audience’s own artistic output. On the other hand, ‘Nick the Stripper’ portrays the audience as voyeuristic, obsessed with the primal sexual energy of the performer despite his apparent repulsiveness. Both songs hint at autobiography, with Cave explicitly identified in the former, and invoke the deliberate surrealism of insect imagery, which in both cases illustrates the debasement of the performer. There is something inherently absurd in the idea of a stripper being ‘hideous to the eye’;14 and ‘Nick the Stripper’ immediately raises the question of how there could be an audience for such a performance. But the simple fact that the performance reoccurs (‘Here we go again’15) indicates its significance, at least to the audience. This is where a great deal of the audience/performer tension exists; the audience gives the performance meaning, which demands the repetition. The recurrence strips the performance of its substance, whether its shock value or profound insight, rendering it harmlessly banal. From this perspective, the performer is passive, necessarily exploited in order to exist as an artist. Conversely, the performer in ‘King Ink’ is expressly active. He ‘strolls into town’ and ‘kicks off his stink boot’,16 establishing a presence without any specific mention of an audience. Although King Ink also identifies with an insect (‘King Ink feels like a bug’17), here the image is used to convey the entrapment of performance. Whereas ‘Nick the Stripper’ toils ceaselessly in his role, this 12

Ibid. Ibid. 14 The Birthday Party, ‘Nick the Stripper’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 15 Ibid. 16 The Birthday Party, ‘King Ink’, Prayers on Fire, CD (Mute Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 17 Ibid. 13

An Audience for Antagonism


performer reacts to the formalities of the performance by engaging the unnamed audience. Shouts of ‘Wake up up up up up’ and ‘Express thyself’ shatter the fourth wall within the song;18 an act which translates even more acutely in a live setting where the audience of the song becomes the audience in front of the band. In both songs, even the performer’s name is expressly identified with his art, which admits a dependence on the audience/performer relationship despite its oppressive or exploitive quality. But the fact that a strip show involving a fat little insect dancing on all fours attracts an audience seems to implicate the observers more than the performer. From their point of view the performance is grotesque, yet their acceptance acknowledges it as legitimate art; and the judgment of ‘hideous to the eye’19 is essentially a façade to mask their enjoyment. Conversely, the mantra of ‘Here we go again’ indicates that although exploited by the act of stripping, the performer is still in control of his audience.20 Similarly, demanding expression from the audience in ‘King Ink’ comes with the qualifier ‘Say something loudly’21 – as if the audience is only capable of uncontrolled or reactionary expression upon command. The performer’s insistent barrage only underlines the inability of the audience to formulate an artistic thought. Here too, they are seen as subservient to the performer even though both audience and performer are required for the event. In a way, it inverts Marshall’s notion that rock’s authenticity comes from solidarity between performer and audience,22 by establishing an authentic connection through deconstructing the roles together. Although both participants acknowledge their part in the act – their dependence upon each other – neither seem able to achieve their ultimate goal. This arrangement carries with it a certain element of absurdity which is appropriate considering one of Cave’s most insightful methods for deconstructing the relationship is parody. Bats and Kings – The Use of Parody and Persona With his pale features, emaciated frame and teased-up crow’s nest of a hairdo, Nick Cave in the 1980s easily fitted the media’s image of a gothic junkie poster boy. But at the same time this look contributed to a persona that Cave was able to manipulate in order to challenge further the legitimacy of both his audience’s growing adoration and his own artistic worth. From describing himself as a ‘fat


Ibid. The Birthday Party, ‘Nick the Stripper’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 20 Ibid. 21 The Birthday Party, ‘King Ink’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 22 P. David Marshall, ‘The Meanings of Popular Music Celebrity’, in P. David Marshall (ed.), The Celebrity Culture Reader (London; New York, 2006), p. 206. 19

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


little insect’ called ‘Nick the Stripper’23 to the supercilious title of ‘King Ink’,24 Cave intermingled artistic superiority with a droll sense of self-loathing that chipped at the façade of celebrity, deflating the stereotypical rock singer ego. In his lyrics, Nick Cave the persona often becomes Nick Cave the caricature, a veritable grindstone on which to sharpen his penchant for parody. Johnson has observed that many Birthday Party songs originated from sendups of specific genres or trends.25 As such, parody is an essential part of their musical arsenal. In an ironic twist, one of their most successful songs was written as a direct attack on the kind of stock gothic associations that less informed critics and fans were wont to make.26 ‘Release the Bats’ (1981) employs a bludgeoning succession of phrases like ‘Sex horror sex bat sex horror sex vampire’27 and the exclamatory ‘Horror bat. Bite!’28 in the utmost ridiculous hyperbole. And yet a whole genre of bands sprung up from the song’s satirically fertilised soil, calling themselves ‘New Super Death Tribe’ and hailing Nick Cave as their godfather.29 So it is no surprise that Cave’s attention to the power of parody vis-à-vis his audience would anything but lessen as his popularity grew. One feature of Cave’s style of parody, especially in response to unconditional adulation, is juxtaposition. In ‘Big-Jesus-Trash-Can’ (1981) the mere proximity of the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Trash Can’ open the song up to a flood of disturbing associations between the King of rock and roll, the Son of God and the trashiest of sexual entertainment. The character’s description (‘Wears a suit of Gold (got greasy hair) / but god gave me Sex appeal’30) and the repetition of ‘rock’ evoke Elvis Presley. But the explicit reference to Jesus elevates the figure to the holiest of public icons. At the same time, Cave uses the southern, white trashiness of the character as a way to undermine something as grandiose as an über-celebrity amalgamation of Elvis and Jesus. The contradiction of gold and trash combined with the insistence that the character is both appealing and appalling exposes the underside of celebrity – the car-wreck attraction factor. However, the fact that ‘Big Jesus’ will be rolling into town driving a trash can also assumes that there will be an audience willing to suspend their recognition of his filthiness in order to bask in his presence. 23

The Birthday Party, ‘Nick the Stripper’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 24 The Birthday Party, ‘King Ink’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 25 Johnston, Bad Seed, p. 81. 26 Ibid., p. 80. 27 The Birthday Party, ‘Release the Bats’, Junkyard, CD (Mute Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 28 Ibid. 29 Johnston, Bad Seed, p. 124. 30 The Birthday Party, ‘Big-Jesus-Trash-Can’, Junkyard, CD (Mute Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

An Audience for Antagonism


As with the critique of the audience/performer relationships in ‘King Ink’ and ‘Nick the Stripper’, Cave’s use of parody in this song is directed both out towards the crowd and inward at his own persona. It is only fitting then that a frequent subject of parody is the role of king. Since royalty represents the quintessence of performance, evident from Shakespeare’s history plays right through to the soap opera of modern British royalty, Cave’s attention to the role of king provides some of his most insightful commentary on the nature of performance, his own included. In Cave’s lyrics, any time a character declares their title in the first person, the kingship they proclaim necessarily involves a certain amount of mockery. The repetitiously booming ‘I am the King’31 that opens ‘Junkyard’ (1981) and the bluesy ‘I am the Black Crow King’32 in ‘Black Crow King’ (1985) sound impressive at first, but both are almost instantaneously undermined, either by the modification to ‘Junkyard King’ in the former or by the description of the latter’s fallen kingdom. But the fact that Cave himself has a vested interest in these speakers by assuming the role of ‘I’ makes the persona ripe for some thoroughly shrewd personal parody. ‘Black Crow King’ is a song combining all of these themes through the incisive wit of Cave’s satirical self-assessment. The Black Crow King’s subjects are described as nothing more than stalks of corn, either ‘nodding’ in the automatic sway of their ruler’s address, and later ‘trodden’ and ‘forgotten’ as if victims of their own devotion.33 And while the king appears to recognise his audience’s rooted and unchanging nature, at the same time he is bound to remain with them, even when he is conscious that ‘everybody’s gone’.34 He is aware of fleeting celebrity, and yet offers no alternative. And yet the image of a king presiding over a withering cornfield is a humorous and loaded one. Both the performer and audience are associated with hollowness – the king as a scarecrow and the audience as stalks of corn – and the image itself plays like any image of Cave on stage singing to his fans. But at the same time, this parody further elaborates on some of the key complications of this relationship. On first reading, it seems as though the king attributes his situation to being pigeonholed or restricted by his persona. The lines, ‘I just made a simple gesture / They jumped up and nailed it to my shadow / My gesture was a hooker / You know my shadow’s made of timber’35 implicate his audience for essentially crucifying him to his act. The ‘gesture’ with which the king has now been permanently associated, is what has bound him to his downfall. Despite this complaint, the king depends on his audience. Since they are rooted in position, so too must he remain in their proximity. 31 The Birthday Party, ‘Junkyard’, Junkyard, CD (Mute Records, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 32 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Black Crow King’, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 33 Ibid. 34 Ibid. 35 Ibid.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Whatever the king was trying to communicate in his gesture, it is out of his hands; it has been interpreted in a certain way, and he is now bound to it. And if he is to continue playing the role of king, his persona is dependent on this interpretation. Without the audience, the King concedes that he is unworthy of his title, realising ‘I am the king of nothing at all’.36 But the audience and performer consciously enter into this relationship. Is that decision itself flawed? Is the desire to communicate then worthy of parody? For Cave, the answer resides in the murky swamp of misinterpretation. Who Will Build a Box? – The Problem of Misinterpretation and Legacy Appropriately, it is not until after The Birthday Party’s demise, when Nick Cave set off on his own with the Bad Seeds, that his focus turned from the audience and their reaction to a consideration of interpretation and understanding. While no less insistent or intense in his vocal and lyrical delivery, the blunt force trauma of The Birthday Party’s sonic assault was replaced by the surgical precision of an up-andcoming novelist. Consequently, the Nick Cave of From Her to Eternity (1984) provides a refined critique of the audience, which reveals a greater understanding of the myth of celebrity and the nature of legacy. This focus on communication is immediately apparent in the fact that Cave includes a lengthy, albeit rambling and drug-hazy prose introduction to his first solo album. Though ‘The Black Pearl’ can be seen largely as a working version of the penultimate scene in Cave’s, at the time, novel-in-progress, this brief sketch contains a precise meditation on misinterpretation. The narrative follows a mass of townsfolk who come upon a body slowly drowning in a pool of quicksand and whose eye resembles a pitch black pearl that they interpret as a wordless cry for help. But in their attempt to assist the figure and rescue the pearl, they come to see themselves, literally reflected in the water, as a lynch mob intending to do the body harm. With this scene, Cave transforms the metaphorical hostility of misinterpretation into literal violence; creating a fictionalisation reminiscent of The Birthday Party’s own audience/performer relationship. Since they project their own interpretation onto the enigmatic pearl, the mob’s actions are already misguided, even if they seem well intentioned. But it is not until later, when they describe their reflection – ‘our eyes bugged and full of hatred. Our mouths are twisted into grimaces of rage … In our fists, knuckles showing white, are all manner of makeshift weapons … that we wave pel-mel above our heads’37 – that they recognise their misunderstanding. Despite realising what their ignorance has inflicted, they nonetheless work harder to preserve the black pearl. 36

Ibid. Nick Cave, ‘The Black Pearl’, prose on album cover of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, CD (Mute Records, 1984). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 37

An Audience for Antagonism


Appropriately, ‘The Black Pearl’ reads almost as a prophetic allegory for the polarised criticism that Cave would endure over the next few albums. With From Her to Eternity lionised by the NME 38 while The First Born is Dead (1985) receiving a tepid response,39 the varied and fickle nature of such opinions only undermines their own relevance and solidified Cave’s distaste for critics one and all. The mob’s attempt to pass judgement without comprehension represents a misguided and self-indulgent approach to art, essentially impeding artistic communication. Where ‘The Black Pearl’ deals with the immediacy of misinterpretation, ‘A Box for Black Paul’ considers its bearing on artistic legacy. Essentially, this is the aftermath of doomed celebrity. In this song Cave depicts the passing of a figure whose legacy appears in peril. And in so doing, he contradicts many aspects of legacy in a way that both validates and questions his own. On the surface, the song assails those who promote a legend only to benefit from the status. The selfserving mob seen ransacking Black Paul’s room are interested in ‘anything that shines’40 and quickly discard items of substance like his notes and books. Similarly, the ‘critics and the hacks’ attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility by simply stating their single-minded and significantly dumbed-down duty: ‘We jes cum to git dah facks!!’41 Unlike the confrontational performer of ‘King Ink’, who maintains a direct influence on the presentation of his art, here the artist’s absence creates a noticeable vacuum, and renders his work completely vulnerable. Beyond the literal need for a casket, requesting a ‘box for Black Paul’,42 is also an attempt to preserve his artistic integrity. The song is not, however, simply a lament for the indefensible artist. The fact that the box itself is very clearly a package undermines its preservative qualities. While it evokes a sense of respect for the artist himself, the public spectacle of putting him in a casket favours a tangible image over any artistic statement or idea – not unlike the scavengers rooting though his material possessions. Even the motive of the song’s speaker is questionable; ‘Enquiring on behalf of his soul’43 presupposes the kind of understanding that is as impossible as it is exaggerated. But rather than elevating the artist above his audience, these admissions point to the notion that the artist is in fact superfluous to the art when an audience is involved. Unlike the early works of The Birthday Party, which challenged the audience to become part of the show, here the audience is the entire event, an idea emphasised by the various repetitions of the phrase: ‘All the hullabaloo and all of the noise’.44 Johnston, Bad Seed, p. 159. Ibid., p. 179. 40 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘A Box for Black Paul’, From Her to Eternity, CD (Mute Records, 1984). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 41 Ibid. 42 Ibid. 43 Ibid. 44 Ibid. 38



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

When Cave returns to the theme of doomed celebrity on Let Love In (1994) with its penultimate track ‘Lay Me Low’, it is interesting to note that misinterpretation and audience are again at the forefront of his concern. As the first-person speaker – presumably Cave in a comical consideration of his own legacy – projects the various recounting of his life and its meaning onto the people who knew him least, the artist becomes essentially inconsequential in the matter of his legacy. This in turn validates a fairly existential view of artistic intent; in the words of the speaker, ‘take a bow / Do it now, do it any old how … And blow it all to hell’.45 But it is this sort of questioning perspective, wrapped in comic insulation, which sustains Cave’s ambivalence to his own artistic success and keeps his legacy impervious to both the audiences he antagonises and the fate of his own celebrity. Cheating Celebrity Death – Nick Cave and Popularity Nick Cave is far from finished with his own celebrity, especially now that he has entered fully into the popular consciousness. As much as this transition can be attributed to a combination of Cave’s uncompromising integrity and the flukiness of celebrity, it also involves a little stargazing of his own. Around the time of ‘Lay Me Low’, Cave developed his own taste for the famous in the form of a professional obsession with sugar sweet pop starlet and fellow Australian Kylie Minogue.46 The interest led to a collaboration between Cave and Minogue on ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ from the album Murder Ballads (1996), a song which became an unlikely source of success for both singers, netting Cave his first top ten hit and instilling Minogue with a newfound artistic credibility. While flirting with such overt pop appeal often means certain death for the cult status of someone like Cave, the fact that he was not only forthright about the effect Minogue’s celebrity had upon him, but held it in the same regard as his own sometimes brutal aesthetic made the transition seems totally natural. Though the move itself wasn’t a calculated foray into pop success, it did say a lot about Cave’s understanding of the pop world’s inner workings. McKenzie Wark, in his book Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, sees the collaboration between Minogue and Cave in terms of the relationship between Apollo and Dionysus. Both deal in the substance of celebrity, but approach it from diametrically opposed vantage points – using it and abusing it.47 But the genius of their working together is that both artists exist in their natural state at the same instant; Minogue as the purity of pop celebrity and Cave as a menace of infamy.

45 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Lay Me Low’, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 46 Beck and Dax, The Life and Music of Nick Cave, p. 155. 47 McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale, 1999), pp. 92–3.

An Audience for Antagonism


The drama of the song, appropriately a murder ballad, is essentially the drama of these two ends of the celebrity spectrum coming together. In light of Cave’s crossover appeal, his most ambitious and exciting project of late – the un-subtle sonic assault of Grinderman – stands as a poignant achievement. Not only did the project chance a departure from the reliably eccentric output of the Bad Seeds, but it affirmed the fact that there was quite a bit of fight left in the Black Crow King. Lashing out with the seething virility of songs like ‘Get It On’ and ‘No Pussy Blues’, the album Grinderman (2007) secures a place amongst Nick Cave’s most confrontational work simply by its arrival so far into his oeuvre. More so than ever, Cave seems to be able to dismantle his mythology, exaggerate his persona and challenge his listeners while enjoying himself in the process. Fronted by the 50-year old, thin-haired and ridiculously moustachioed Cave (who also wields the ultimate rock star implement: a Stratocaster), Grinderman is less a mid-life crisis than a veritable fuck you to the curse of ageing celebrity. At the same time, ‘No Pussy Blues’ returns to the theme of audience and interpretation, while ‘Get It On’ delivers the final word on doomed celebrity by figuratively cheating death. With its contextual framing provided by the sounds of a typewriter in action, ‘No Pussy Blues’ foregrounds the role of artist even before the music begins. When the speaker opens his confessional with ‘My face is finished / My body’s gone’48 he instantly imparts a sense of former glory. The hook, however, comes in that it is a physical former glory, not an artistic lament of ‘Lay Me Low’ and ‘A Box for Black Paul’. Lest he seem entirely superficial, the speaker does hint at his concern with misinterpretation by contemplating the audience’s undue adulation: ‘standin’ up here in all this applause / and gazin’ down at the young and beautiful with their questioning eyes’.49 But what is most interesting, is that while the speaker seems to espouse his self-sufficiency by declaring, ‘I must above all things love myself’,50 he then spends the rest of the song devising ways of selling out to gain the affection of another. Cave creates a fascinating paradox here by juxtaposing the public self basking in the effortless adoration against the private self attempting to placate a potential lover through domestication, and then wrapping it all up in a truly bombastic single. While ‘No Pussy Blues’ addresses the audience almost as directly as ‘King Ink’ and ‘Nick the Stripper’, Grinderman’s opening track ‘Get It On’ approaches the problem of legacy in a way that recalls ‘Sonny’s Burning’. Coming full circle from the vicarious immolation of Sonny, ‘Get It On’ inverts the initial metaphor of celebrity as a substitute for experience. Rather than watching the performer burn with intensity, here it is a matter of digging up a famous corpse to relay a message of primal and instinctual vitality. It’s a sort of rebirth, with the speaker 48 Grinderman, ‘No Pussy Blues’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 49 Ibid. 50 Ibid.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

first saying ‘I had to get up to get down and start all over again / Head on down to the basement and shout’51 before bursting forth with the decree, ‘Get it on! Get it on’. Along with this humorous circumstance, there is a further sense of absurdity – the speaker is conscious of his comeback at the same time that the audience seems to be aware of his ridiculousness (‘They dug his pink hair curlers / They dug his sequined gown’52). Once again, Cave implicates the performer and audience equally in the complicated dance of celebrity. While it would appear that the myth requires almost nothing of the performer other than showing up, and even his death is an event that needs no participation (‘Then one day he went away / His neighbour claimed he’d shot him’53), Cave’s performance in the song, howling through its central character, sounds as if he’s once again possessed by the fully physical antagonistic tendencies of his Birthday Party days. Here we go again indeed. Conclusion That Nick Cave continues to infuse his albums with meditations on his own celebrity and the relationship between persona and audience is a testament to the depth of his own musical legacy. And when the clichéd gothic elements of Cave’s style or a fascination with his past addiction sometimes supersede a more literary or psychologically provocative reading of his work, it simply reaffirms everything about himself and his art that he already understands. Yet for all his criticism of the audience and lampooning of his own persona, Cave’s work maintains that both are essential to the artistic equation. Even with a certain disdain for celebrity status, the simple fact that this relationship has necessitated such consideration illustrates that the antagonism itself has prevented the celebrity’s doom.

51 Grinderman, ‘Get it On’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 52 Ibid. 53 Ibid.

An Audience for Antagonism


Bibliography Beck, Johannes and Maximilan Dax, The Life and Music of Nick Cave: An Illustrated Biography (Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag, 1999). The Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire, CD (Mute Records, 1981). ——, Junkyard, CD (Mute Records, 1982). ——, Mutiny/The Bad Seed, CD (Mute Records, 1983). Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, CD (Mute Records, 1984). ——, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). ——, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). Giese, Rachel, ‘Death Star: Celebrity and Violence Collide in David Cronenberg’s Andy Warhol Exhibit’, 5 Jul 2006 [Online], available at arts/artdesign/cronenberg.html, accessed 29 May 2008. Grinderman, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Hoskyns, Barney, ‘Primal Pain at the Psychos’ Party: The Birthday Party at the Venue, London’, New Musical Express, 13 Mar 1982, archived at http://www., accessed 3 Jun 2008. Johnston, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1996). Marshall, P. David, Celebrity and Power (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). ——, ‘The Meanings of Popular Music Celebrity’, in P. David Marshall (ed.), The Celebrity Culture Reader (London; New York: Routledge, 2006). Rojek, Chris, ‘The Psychology of Achieved Celebrity’, in P. David Marshall (ed.), The Celebrity Culture Reader (London; New York: Routledge, 2006). Wark, McKenzie, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Annandale: Pluto Press, 1999).

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Chapter 6

And the Ass Saw the Angel: A Novel of Fragment and Excess Carol Hart

And in this lavender hell ah lay, upon a bed of tangled vine, and all the spinning webs did leave a sticky grey veil about mah face. And when she did appear, floating above all the desecration, her pinions fanned the scattered offerings up into a pile of hair and skin and bone, of paper and ash, of feather, tooth and nail, of blood and rags, and fractured glass, and consumed them all in sudden fire that leapt and licked the tips of her wings and crackled unnerfoot. And though the hood of web masked mah eyes, ah could see the sad and sultry aspect of her face, and her hair worn loose, and her damp, swelling breasts, her painted lips and nails and her heavy-lidded eyes – and though mah ears were wrapped in web, ah could hear her slow breathing and the lazy turn of her words as she told me that ah must know mah enemy.

Published in 1989, with a special collector’s edition released in January 2008, And the Ass Saw the Angel is a novel that charts the violent one hundred year history of Nick Cave’s fictitious locale, the Ukulore Valley. The Ukulites are a gruesome mix of religious zealots, in-bred hillbillies, misfits, hobos and murderers. The story is mainly narrated through the interior monologue of the deeply troubled mute protagonist Euchrid Eucrow. Born to parents whose in-breeding stems back generations, Euchrid suffers epileptic fits and endures the endless violence and haranguing of his alcoholic mother and bears witness to the cruelty his trapperfather inflicts upon animals. In time, Euchrid comes to believe that by divine appointment, he is God’s messenger and as such, his duty lies in avenging evil. The narrative patterning of And the Ass Saw the Angel is unmistakably Gothic. The novel adheres to any number of traditional Gothic conventions not least of which is that Gothic literature is imbued with its own unique narrative excess. For Fred Botting, Gothic synthesises multitudinous threats to social mores, ostensibly, ‘threats associated with the supernatural and natural forces, imaginative excesses and delusions, religious and human evil, social transgression, mental disintegration and spiritual corruption’. Botting’s apprehension of the literary Gothic provides a useful optic though which we can further explore the strategy of excess in Cave’s Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London, 1990), pp. 178–9. Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 2.



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

novel. This discussion examines Cave’s novel in light of its narrative excess and, in doing so, considers the ways in which fragments and objects in this novel come together in the production of its excess. The fragment in Gothic sensibility, according to Jan B. Gordon, is that which is ‘incomplete or unfinished’ and is often ‘found rather than created, thus existing as an affect rather than cause’. Gordon rightly points to the proliferation of found objects in much Gothic fiction such as incomplete manuscripts, old locks and bolts, crumbling tombstones, and half-formed subjectivities. Such fragments and found objects are replete in Cave’s novel, but while Gordon argues that such fragments exist in Gothic fiction as ‘all middle’ and form a certain narrative discontinuity, thus ensuring the open-ended quality that largely defines the Gothic text, this chapter argues that rather than imposing disunity upon the text, the fragments in And the Ass Saw the Angel establish causality and as such, impose a narrative unity. This discussion begins with a brief examination of the structure of the novel which then moves into a broader discussion on the novel’s correspondences with Gothic literary traditions and its inherent constituents of fragment and excess. This discussion will focus upon the novel’s most protean of characters, Euchrid Eucrow. The Structure of the Novel The production of narrative can be characterised as a careful assemblage of parts. For the writer, the creation of a literary world is a process whereby the act of describing entails a disassembling of parts before these parts are reassembled into something constituting a whole. Narrative then, begins with a fragment and if narrative is always already fragmented, reliant upon both author and reader to piece the bits together in order to construct meaning, we can understand all texts as being necessarily proto-fragmentary in nature. A text can be further fragmented by its intertextual and paratextual traces; bits and pieces of alternative or accessory text. Preceding the novel’s prologue is a page of biblical quotations from the Book of Numbers. These biblical fragments draw attention to the origins of the novel’s title: (‘And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way …’) and provide a backdrop to the novel and a prophetic warning of the revelations that will follow. The prologue is prefaced with another narrative fragment – the narration of Euchrid delivering a maniacal account of his death. This narrative fragment serves to prefigure the novel’s awful conclusion. The prologue then moves into third person narration before shifting back to the first person narration of Euchrid. The narrator sketches in details of the Ukulore Valley; a cane-growing region  Jan B. Gordon, ‘Narrative Enclosure as Textual Ruin: An Archaeology of Gothic Consciousness’, in Fred Botting and Dale Townsend (eds), Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 1, (London, 2004), p. 59.

And the Ass Saw the Angel


situated in swampland. Euchrid then takes up the story and offers a vivid account of his birth and the subsequent death of his twin brother. Euchrid’s narrative is momentarily interrupted by the inclusion of another fragment within the text, the appearance of a notice announcing the unveiling of a statue honouring the Valley’s prophet and saint, Jonas Ukulore. This fragment also signals the novel’s concerns with religious zealotry – another piece that forms part of the whole in terms of the novel’s engagement with excess. The prologue continues to shift back and forth between first and third person narration and fragmented accounts of the personal and the historical are interspersed with snatches of song lyrics, poetry and biblical messages. There is a macabre inventory of the animals Euchrid’s father had caught in traps, nets and snares. The clinical nature of this inventory – the type and quantity of species, nature of death, and so forth, while appearing in the prologue as an apparent incidental, contributes to what will become the reader’s broader understanding of Pa’s profound cruelty and gruesome obsession with collecting and classifying dead and decaying artefacts – a preoccupation Euchrid also inherits. There is a table that charts the sugar production in the Ukulore Valley, the inclusion of which serves to highlight the economic downturn the town has experienced since unrelenting torrential rains began three years earlier. It is the event that coincided with, or, as the townsfolk believe, the divine event that caused the rain to cease, that much of the novel turns on and so the table’s significance as a seemingly random piece of information proves crucial to the unfolding events of the novel. As such, what may initially appear as excessive intertextual fragments designed to destabilise the text, are eventually revealed as critical to the novel’s organising structure. While the prologue offers no great sense of plot in that no particular action takes place, profiles of the characters are drawn, thus providing the opportunity for the plot to unfold in the proceeding chapters. Beyond the prologue, the novel comprises three sections, Book One, ‘The Rain’, Book Two, ‘Beth’ and Book Three, ‘Doghead’. Book One establishes the novel’s plot conventions. It also draws the reader further into the murky world of the Ukulites and deeper still into the fractured psyche of Euchrid. Book One concludes with the arrival of Beth whose virgin birth, the townsfolk believe, signals the second coming of Christ. They are blind to the realisation that Beth is the child of Cosey Mo, the town harlot who was violently driven out of the Valley less than a year earlier. The cessation of the rains which coincided with Beth’s birth brings further proof of Beth’s divine incarnation. In Book Two we see Euchrid’s growing and unnerving obsession with Beth and finally, in Book Three, we see this obsession spill over as Euchrid, emboldened by his delusions, descends into madness, murders Beth, and then crucifies himself in a swamp of quickmud. The novel concludes with an epilogue of barely two pages. It perhaps goes without saying that any novel’s epilogue – the work’s final instalment – will either provide resolution or it won’t. The prologue will generally give the conclusion its ‘twist’. It will often skew the reader’s expectations and it will sometimes indicate that the preceding events in the novel will continue, that events will be cyclical and as such, the story will be resistant to closure. The epilogue in And the Ass Saw

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


the Angel does not depart from these conventions and ambitions. Expectations do not necessarily go unrealised and there is a twist, or at least, a twist of sorts. The epilogue in this novel gives rise to multiple or possible realisations. It is set in a doctor’s surgery where the doctor battles, but fails to save two lives: the life of Beth and the life of a mother in difficult labour. The twist arises out of the safe delivery of a child; a boy with pale blue eyes whom the Ukulore women believe is Christ reborn. The task of the reader is to connect the recent fatality of events with the textual and narrative fragments that assisted in their production. The reader is then obliged to settle upon a possible conclusion. Was Euchrid in fact fulfilling his appointment with God and returning as Christ? Was Beth, as he figured, the work of the devil? Or, is the violent history of the Ukulore Valley destined to repetition? What we can also say about the epilogue is that it cannot or at least it is not meant to be read independently of the rest of the text. The epilogue is configured as another textual fragment which in the case of And the Ass Saw the Angel serves to consolidate the text. In this sense, we can consider that the epilogue has its own dialogic quality whereby it is engaged in a specific type of communicative exchange with both the text and the reader. Having established that the nature of narrative is essentially and fundamentally fragmentary, and having considered how this is rendered most striking in And the Ass Saw the Angel, I now want to introduce another type of fragment that is present in the novel which also performs an intrinsic narrative function and that is the presence of the object and the collection. Objects and Fragments Pa’s obsession with keeping inventories of the dead animals he has trapped and his predilection for collecting objects in boxes is mimicked by Euchrid, but, as we see earlier in the novel, Euchrid’s collections carry none of the macabre brutality of his father’s. In one of the novel’s more tender moments, Euchrid tends to his collection of cicadas. Cradling a shoebox marked ‘Cicadao Cicala Cigala’ and containing 19 cicada shells, ‘all in perfect condition’, Euchrid recounts how he had collected the shells from tree trunks before the rains had driven the insects from the Valley. It is Euchrid’s act of gently placing the cicada shells upon cotton wool pads at the bottom of the shoebox that evokes (for me at least) childhood memories of long hot summers spent collecting cicada shells and the husks of Christmas Beetles, which I then re-housed in Redhead matchboxes lined with cotton wool. Literature’s capacity to examine aspects of the human condition that the reader can identify as their own is a fundamental element in the Gothic novel, but one which it largely articulates through subversive means. Cave captures the divergences, complexities and the excesses of the 

Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 66.

And the Ass Saw the Angel


human condition through his careful crafting of each of his characters, and it is Euchrid’s reflections and gestures that so uniquely respond to the spectrums of these conditions and sensibilities. Along with dead insects, Euchrid meticulously inventories other fragments of decaying matter. Curious about the ‘uncertain nature’ of his ‘delinquent blood’, Euchrid self-mutilates. Cutting his bed sheets into strips, he dresses his wounds. When they have healed, he neatly folds the crusty bandages and places them in a box marked ‘strips’. He then picks at the scabs of his wounds and places them in a tobacco tin lined with cotton wool. The tobacco tin is then placed in a shoebox with some of his teeth, dead skin, eyelashes, hair and nail clippings. The shoebox is appropriately labelled ‘clippings’. Euchrid’s collecting of objects, in this instance objects that are quite literally of the self, can be understood as a kind of symbolic exchange. We can consider his collection as symbolising childhood deprivations, most obviously the deprivation of maternal nurturing. In this instance, Euchrid’s collection is a replacement for that which has been lost or denied. Moreover, the collection is a kind of mirror to Euchrid’s self whereby objects of the self are reflected back to the self and he recognises this anomaly by observing that his collections, the ‘boxes and boxes of terrible secrets’, represented ‘all that was ah’. There is a distinct melancholia, indeed a touching nostalgia, reflected in Euchrid’s collection and again Cave opens up the prospect of personal experiences that the reader can identify with. A friend of mine tells me that when her children were young she would find herself resisting the temptation to place their nailclippings in a cotton wool-lined box rather than discarding them. On the occasion of our first hair cut, our mother would place a single lock of hair in the family photo album. The lock of hair taped next to a photograph: sign and referent symbolising and memorialising a material, if not melancholic remnant of the past, by its very gesture (the integration of two fragments), is at once both a disconnection from, and a re-connection to, that which has been lost; that which is irretrievable, and that which announces a particular kind of death. The significance of collected objects in the novel and their relationship to death is further highlighted by the tenderness with which Euchrid retrieves the personal belongings of Cosey Mo who was brutally beaten by the menfolk, many of whom were her customers. The townsfolk, led by the maniacal Abie Po, decide to avenge Cosey Mo for the deluge, which they attribute to her sins. Euchrid returns to the scene the following day and locates Cosey Mo’s charred black beauty case. The contents of the case include bottles of scented water, coloured cotton balls, a hypodermic syringe, a photograph of Cosey Mo inscribed with a poem, tiny vials of morphine and a gold locket that held another photograph of Cosey when she was a child. Euchrid assembles Cosey’s belongings in a shoebox which he carefully lines with strips of newspaper before inscribing the box, 

Ibid., p. 67. Ibid., p. 181.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

‘Cosey Mo, 1943’. On a subsequent return, Euchrid finds the hacked-off locks of Cosey Mo; a further humiliating legacy of her beating. Euchrid carefully wraps the lock of hair in a handkerchief, destined, no doubt, for the shoebox. While these objects can be understood as the fragments and remnants from Cosey’s life, far from being merely ‘all middle’ and performing no unifying function on the text, they are crucial plot devices. Objects, fragments, lists, maps and scrawled diary entries are by no means located in this text for the purposes of narrative estrangement and as the story unfolds, their centrality to the narrative trajectory becomes apparent. While Euchrid’s practice of collecting is intrinsically tied to the desire to impose some kind of order upon reigning chaos, his careful serialising of the collections is also tied to his desire to narrate himself into the world. Through these acts of careful inscription, and in the absence of speech, Euchrid textualises his world. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart conceives the practice of inscription as signifying immortality. Unlike speech, which evaporates without trace, the mark of the inscription remains in place. Stewart exemplifies the significance of the inscription and its relationship to immortality by noting that, ‘our terror of the unmarked grave is a terror of the insignificance of the world without writing. The metaphor of the unmarked grave is one which joins the mute and the ambivalent; without the mark there is no boundary, no point at which to begin the repetition’. This idea of repetition as being inherent in the practice of inscription must also invariably apply to the practice of collecting, for collecting by its very nature, is a system of repetition. Euchrid bridges the gap between silence and ambivalence by marking the contents of each little box and tobacco tin. In doing so, he leaves his trace. Denied the faculty of speech, Euchrid is nevertheless endowed with an extraordinary vocabulary that is expressed through his interior monologue whereby his thoughts are also constructed out of objects, fragments and things. Cave’s use of fragment and excess gives rise to the novel’s artistic form. The use of language and the imagery that Euchrid’s seizures and visions create, recalls T.S. Eliot’s summation that ‘the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a chain of events, which shall be the formula of the particular emotion’. The emotional particulars of the novel are most profoundly expressed by Euchrid when in the grip of one of his seizures, words and images tumble and collide, as fragments of the cosmos explode:

 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC, 2005), p. 31.  T.S. Eliot, The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1975), p. 177.

And the Ass Saw the Angel


As ah get called unner, flesh by little flesh, with the comely boggery swaddling mah loins in its warm and sulphurous issue, tugging meatus unner, unner, to its nether-lands, its no-wither-lands, ah make the space about me open up its wounds. The night holds out a dark lantern and springs its shutter open, so that in the pitch of mah blindness, mah scotoma is blasted into a battle sphere of wild meteors, blood-blown moons, suns and molten planets, butchered asteroids, berserk comets, luminary clusters, gaudy wreaths of stellar motion, green nebulae, gaseous nebulae, white and spiral nebulae, hairy-stars and fireballs, shimmering sun-spots and solar flares, blinding faculae, flocculi, and day-stars, new moons, red planets, and stars of blue and tinsel, trinket-yellow and white stars, harlequin showers, spectral moons and mock moons, Sol, Helios, Phoebus, Mars, Saturn, Dipper, Saucepan, Big Bear and Little Bear, in collision, in colour, here, in the guttles of the sump, alone and at war with the macrocosm, unnerborne, eyes squeezed shut and rolling-squeezing, squeezing out the last drips of the spectrum behind mah lids, til ah open mah eyes again and feel them adjust back to grey, for everything is forever grey and the pressure unner mah ribs is hurting me, breathing is getting harder, lungs will cleave apart, only just on one half swallered and the pressure … the pressure … the planets of pain ….

In Romantic Poetry and the Fragmentary Imperative, Christopher Strathman distinguishes between two forms of fragmentation and convincingly argues that the fragment ‘unsettles unities and wholes and searches for another kind of order’, while fragmentary writing ‘is characterized by mobility and exposure to what it does not yet or cannot contain’.10 While this distinction is born out in Cave’s novel, the two forms are by no means mutually exclusive of each other. We have seen how the fragments which comprise Euchrid’s collections are central to causality, and as such, produce a particular kind of textual and narrative ordering. Equally, the fragmentary writing which informs the novel’s structure is made coherent by the presence of not only the bits and pieces of found objects but also by the intertextual fragments that appear as maps, lists and so forth. The ‘loose’ nouns and adjectives that are seemingly strung together haphazardly in the above passage prove to be assembled rather more strategically. While the excess within this particular passage needs no underlining, closer inspection reveals that what at first blush appear as aberrant words and sentences on a page, form rhythmic patterns – a series of songlines. There can be no doubt that the deft hand of a songwriter is at work here. Furtively, this richly poetic expression of the celestial sublime conforms to Strathman’s assertion that fragmentary writing is a style or form of writing that is in the throes of realising its inability to contain. In this instance, that which Euchrid can no longer contain, will eventually spill forth as he moves closer to fulfilling his murderous intentions, which in and of themselves are excessive. Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 66. Christopher A. Strathman, Romantic Poetry and Fragmentary Imperative: Schlegel, Byron, Joyce, Blanchot (Albany, NY, 2006), p. 164. 


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


I now want to return to the significance of ‘found objects’ in the novel to further expand upon the idea that such objects and fragments are the agents of causality. As Euchrid’s divine plan unfolds, he happens upon an old padlocked trunk in his now deceased parents’ room. Levering the trunk open, its contents reveal all manner of miscellany. An inscription on the inside of the trunk indicates that it had once belonged to a Captain Theodore Quickborn. Euchrid perceives the trunk as signalling another message from God, and while he observes that ‘Captain Quickborn’s all seemed to be contained’ within the chest, it is Euchrid’s fate that can be understood to also be contained within in it.11 Euchrid first retrieves a Captain’s jacket from the trunk complete with epaulets and medals. Further foraging uncovers more seemingly disparate objects including papers, maps, logs and diaries. Out of the papers slips a photograph of Captain Quickborn. The faded image of the weather-beaten sailor is reflected back to Euchrid as an image of himself which he perceives as another sign from God. Euchrid then retrieves a battered leather case from the trunk that contains a telescope. Fixing the ‘unblinking optic’ on the valley below, his gaze settles on Memorial Square which is home to the white marble statue of an angel clutching her sickle.12 The pieces of the plan are falling into place. Euchrid’s discovery of the trunk is rather more coincidental than incidental, and its presence refutes Gordon’s notion that the fragment in Gothic fiction is necessarily bereft of significance. Although he discards much of the trunk’s contents, having resolved that the maps and diaries were of no relevance to his plan, the Captain’s jacket and the telescope help complete his transformation from meek loner to maniacal killer. Out of these objects, the photograph of Quickborn notwithstanding, Euchrid constructs, or rather, re-constructs his identity. Just as Euchrid undergoes this transformation, so too does the family home, and it is here that the novel’s Gothic antecedent is skilfully apprehended. Gothic Sensibilities The locale of much early Gothic fiction was the castle. In later nineteenth and twentieth-century Gothic fiction, the medieval castle was replaced by the sometimes haunted, but always gloomy, large and rambling old house. The Gothic house in And the Ass Saw the Angel is not defined by a labyrinthine spatiality found in earlier gothic texts, but rather it is a rambling spatial enclosure that toward the end of the novel becomes a mere fragment of its original structure. Typically, the Gothic house interns haunting remnants and memories of the past that continue to haunt the characters, and in the case of And the Ass Saw the Angel it is the events from the recent past that haunt Euchrid. Having killed his father and having witnessed his father’s brutal slaying of his mother, Euchrid cannot escape their Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 217. Ibid., p. 219.



And the Ass Saw the Angel


enduring spectre. He sets about eradicating their presence and their belongings. First, in order to rid the house of the smell of his mother, which lingers miasmalike, he bashes down the walls to release the stench. Having maniacally dismantled much of the house, Euchrid sets about rebuilding it. Erecting a turret provides the perfect vantage point from which he can view the goings-on in the valley below. Euchrid also fashions a security wall out of bits and pieces, found objects and fragments which combine to form part of a disturbing whole. The wall is Euchrid’s ultimate collection; an unwieldy and monstrous mosaic comprising assorted bits of timber, pickets, pieces of trellis, window frames, fruit crates, tea-chests, corrugated tin, chicken wire, barbed wire, cyclone wire, ropes, straps, cables, paint pot lids, car doors, and pieces of broken and unbroken glass. Unlike earlier undertakings where Euchrid administered his collections with a meticulousness that underlined his tenderness (his clippings encased in a carefully inscribed tin and Cosey Mo’s personal effects thoughtfully laid to rest in a paper-lined shoebox), the wall is a frenzied and haphazard assemblage, ‘a shambolic and unsteady bulwark’, whereby the maniacal labour of its making is fuelled by bloodlust.13 The wall takes on bestial qualities and Euchrid conceives of it as variously being a ‘saw-toothed serpent consuming its own tail’, ‘a quilled eel feigning sleep, but ready in an instant, to bite’, and a ‘great ringed beast’ barking and gnashing in the wind.14 The collector’s collection, as we have seen in the earlier part of the novel, has the capacity to reflect self to self. The wall, a vast collection of fragment and excess, now mirrors the monstrous self back to the self – the monster of its creation. Successful achievement of the Gothic effect must invariably conjoin a ‘fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce a sickening descent into disintegration’.15 While ‘the insufferable stretch of time’16 is distinguished by Euchrid in units of ‘dead time’17 and ‘time lived’,18 both temporalities bring to bear an equal and inescapable torment. As space disintegrates, time evaporates. With the house now a mere husk of its former structure and the wall proving pervious, Euchrid wastes no time in executing the final instalment of his plan. By now, Beth, suffocating under the omniscient watch of her religious minders, is enamoured of the appearance of a bedraggled and sickle-bearing Euchrid (whom she believes to be Jesus) under her bedroom window. Beth unwittingly, yet willingly, implicates herself in Euchrid’s plan as she becomes convinced 13

Ibid., p. 215. Ibid., p. 215. 15 Chris Baldick, ‘Introduction’, in Chris Baldick (ed.), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (New York, 1992), p. xix. 16 Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 227. 17 Ibid., p. 226. 18 Ibid., p. 227. 14

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


that Jesus has come for her and she too is part of God’s blessed plan. She begins leaving ‘offerings’ for Euchrid on her bedroom window; notes which urge him to come for her soon.19 Enclosed in one of Beth’s notes is a lock of her hair tied with velvet ribbon. The lock of lavender-scented hair triggers in Euchrid an olfactory memory of Cosey Mo. Earlier in the novel, having retrieved a lock of Cosey Mo’s hair, Euchrid reads the golden lock as a divine portent: ‘the lock’ he says, ‘was the key’.20 The entanglement of these two locks of hair – the locks of mother and daughter – are now figured as vital narrative strands that provide the opportunity for the reader to ply the novel’s narrative fragments into a coherent weave. Peering into Beth’s bedroom window Euchrid recalls the similar thrill he felt when peering through Cosey Mo’s window as she entertained her clients. Struck by the collision of these two worlds, he muses, ‘how similar, yet how different. Yet how very vital to His greater plan were they both’.21 The similarity and difference between the two – angelic Cosey and demonic Beth are the convergence which underlie Euchrid’s mission. Throughout the novel Euchrid is visited by an angel; his guardian angel, the ‘winged theophany’ that is Cosey Mo who urges Euchrid to fulfil his plan.22 The plan is fulfilled and Euchrid’s final encounter with Beth takes place at the town’s Memorial Gardens, befittingly, under the wings of the white marble angel. It is here that Euchrid’s sickle remains true to its promise and with the promise firmly in check, Euchrid returns to the turret to survey his deed. Quickborn’s telescope, as reliable as the sickle, brings into focus ‘an upraised sickle and a sickle brought down’.23 The child, returned at last, to the angel. The menfolk swiftly descend to avenge Beth’s death. Knowing they have come to take his ‘last shred of self’,24 Euchrid delivers himself to the grave of the swamp and as the quagmire sucks him deeper down, the flutter of angel’s wings sweeps away the fragments of his life and ushers in his death. This discussion has sought to highlight the intricacies of Cave’s novel, notably, its rigorous and thoughtful engagement with fragmentation and excess. This is a novel that makes demands upon the reader, but such demands are met with reward. In un-picking the pieces that form parts of its whole, I have endeavoured to reveal the ways in which the textual remnants and fragments are utilised for the purposes of unity rather than disunity. Beyond this, And the Ass Saw the Angel is a novel that reflects and responds to Gothic literary traditions. Refreshingly, though, it remains unencumbered by its adherence to such conventions and Cave takes the reader into fresh narrative territory, albeit bleak territory where, ordinarily, angels might fear to tread. The test of a good 19

Ibid., p. 242. Ibid., p. 109. 21 Ibid., pp. 233–4. 22 Ibid., p. 288. 23 Ibid., p. 302. 24 Ibid., p. 285. 20

And the Ass Saw the Angel


novel lies in its ability to open up a new or different world to the reader. And the Ass Saw the Angel achieves this by opening up a world that is as fragmented as it is chaotic and as sinister as it is tender. Yet it also succeeds in opening up a world that is also strangely recognisable. Euchrid’s world, his collections of fragments and remnants from the past, of objects lost and found, has a somewhat haunting familiarity, particularly to those of us whose collections of things make our world meaningful. We surround ourselves with objects and things for all manner of reasons, but no matter the reason, these things are our narrative – they are both cultural biographies and material autobiographies. As serendipity would have it, as I put the finishing touches to this chapter, I received in the post, courtesy of a friend in Australia, Nick Cave Stories. This delightful book was published to coincide with an exhibition in Melbourne celebrating the work of Cave which, disappointingly, I would not be able to see. Working my way through the prologue and the foreword I was struck by a quote from Cave: ‘What can I say? I have a thing about things. Some people you know, they don’t have a thing about nothing’.25 Reading on, I discover that Cave is an itinerant and meticulous list maker and diarist, an avid collector of curios and words. I learn that when Cave was writing And the Ass Saw the Angel he foraged around the local flea market in Berlin which led to his accumulating an eclectic collection of things including boxes of human hair, bird bones, and picture postcards, and angels. Smiling as I read this, I’m struck by my own dumb realisation that of course this is how the foundations of the novel, indeed the process of writing it, was conceived – through the physical objects of Cave’s encounter. Cave’s words seem to ring true. To write about things, you really do have to have a thing about them.

Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne, 2007), p. 10.



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Baldick, Chris (ed.), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Barrand, Janine and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Botting, Fred, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996). Cave, Nick, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London: Penguin, 1990). Gordon, Jan B., ‘Narrative Enclosure as Textual Ruin; An Archaeology of Gothic Consciousness’, in Fred Botting and Dale Townsend (eds), Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 1 (London: Routledge, 2004). Kermode, Frank (ed.), The Selected Prose of T.S Eliot (London: Faber, 1975). Stewart, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). Strathman, Christopher A., Romantic Poetry and Fragmentary Imperative: Schlegel, Byron, Joyce, Blanchot (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2006).

Chapter 7

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema Adrian Danks

Towards the end of The Road to God Knows Where (1990), Uli M. Schueppel’s fitfully engaging though mostly pedestrian documentary of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds early 1989 tour of the United States, we see Cave talking about a meeting he is about to attend with Orion Pictures in Los Angeles. We see Cave reading a script in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, not too convincingly proclaiming, ‘So, Hollywood here I come’. This brief and uneventful scene, both within the film and in terms of its ultimate implications for Cave’s broader career, is nevertheless quite illuminating. It points towards an alternate set of possibilities for, and points of intersection within, Cave’s career, specifically a piecemeal and only ever intermittently engaged encounter with the cinema. The scene underlines the limitations of Cave’s varied cinematic career, isolating a brief moment in time – after the production of John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) and the American release of German director Wim Wenders’s celebrated 1987 film Wings of Desire (which features Cave in a small, talismanic role) – when a more sustained relationship with the medium may have seemed possible. The placement of this scene is also instructive as it sits immediately after one of Cave’s most galvanising performances captured on film, an acoustic rendition of the patently defiant and scorchingly imagistic ‘The Mercy Seat’ at a local radio station. The Road to God Knows Where acts to pinpoint the potential of Cave’s contribution to the cinema as well as the glaring limitations of his screen persona. This chapter focuses upon the often intersecting strands of Cave’s intermittent work in the cinema, concluding with a sustained discussion of his contribution as writer, composer, chief collaborator and promoter of the critically acclaimed The Proposition (2005). It argues that, although Cave’s cinematic contribution has been piecemeal and distinctly uneven, it represents an important and underanalysed aspect of the musician’s career and a significant chapter in Australian film collaboration.

 The Road to God Knows Where is also a fairly anodyne resituating of Don’t Look Back (1967), D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. Dylan’s dexterous use and deployment of the media apparatus in this documentary contrasts revealingly with Cave’s more stilted and less comfortable encounter with the same forms. The parallel is also interesting in light of Cave’s more recent cinematic parallels with Dylan (The Proposition cf. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]).

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Nick Cave and the Cinema Cave’s encounter with the cinema, running parallel to his almost continuously productive and highly successful musical career, can seem relatively insignificant. Nevertheless, Cave has often stated that the cinema is, in many respects, his preferred medium, at least as a consumer: ‘I still consider film to be my basically, my favourite medium. I mean I enjoy films more than any other medium. I enjoy seeing films more than looking at a painting or listening to a record, or whatever. I find they have a more lasting effect on me in general’. But the collaborative, economic and temporal realities of the form do not sit well with his somewhat solitary and relatively ‘impatient’ artistic practice. As Cave has said, ‘being on a movie set is the most unbelievably tedious thing to be part of’. The publicity demands attached to the release of films like Ghosts… of the Civil Dead and The Proposition, have also made the often media shy Cave wary of the medium. Although Cave has often stated that he enjoys the painstaking craft of songwriting, his work in the cinema is marked by a less rigorous and more freewheeling approach. For instance, Cave contrasts his approach to the two forms in the following fashion: ‘I suppose that the reason I write scripts so quickly is that I don’t feel responsible for what I’m writing. I feel that I’m writing something for somebody else, and that frees me up enormously’. Thus, Cave’s cinematic work is also a model of collaboration and is marked by one of his longest personal and artistic partnerships: with John Hillcoat. Cave and Hillcoat have worked together on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, To Have and to Hold (1996) and The Proposition, as well as numerous music videos. At one level, Cave seems ideally suited to the cinema. His songs often have a heightened, melodramatic quality which, when combined with the patently imagistic and narrative form of his lyrics, marks his music as peculiarly ‘cinematic’. His vocal and live performances often have an explicit theatricality that also sits comfortably within the self-consciousness of much contemporary cinema. Nevertheless, Cave’s intermittent comments on the cinema tend to emphasise his less intellectual and more emotive response to the medium, as well as a less developed critical sense than that which characterises his relationship to music and literature. Whereas his view of music is predicated upon well-defined tastes and a critical awareness of song structure, as well as the ‘painful’ and perhaps almost violent struggle of songwriting itself, Cave seems to characterise himself as a relatively indiscriminate consumer of cinema: ‘I find it the one art form where

From an interview with Cave conducted in 1988 after the filming of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Included as a special feature on John Hillcoat, dir., Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, DVD (Umbrella Entertainment, 2003).  Tiffany Baker, ‘In My Own Words’, Sunday Herald Sun (25 Sep 2005): 12.  Nick Roddick, ‘Nick Cave Made Us a Proposition’, The Script Factory, 22 Mar 2006 [Online], available at 38.html, accessed 22 Sep 2007. 

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


I don’t have to think. I love being manipulated by what I see’. In an interview conducted around the time of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead’s release Cave stated, ‘I tend to enjoy employing clichés … and giving them new life’. This approach marks Cave’s contributions to various films, most particularly his scripts for Ghosts… of the Civil Dead and The Proposition. As outlined below, Cave has contributed soundtracks to several films (in collaboration with other members of the Bad Seeds), has acted and appeared in a handful of others, and has contributed to the scripts of two significant collaborations with Hillcoat. Cave’s soundtracks are often quite romantic and even ethereal in tone, their overall soundscapes and atmospheres contrasting with the immediacy and physicality of what is seen on screen. For example, the use of a solo woman’s voice on the soundtrack of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead acts as a counterpoint to the totally male-centred, brutal and curiously isolated world on screen. Nick Cave in the Cinema The least successful strand of Cave’s cinematic work has been his acting, his performances worsening in quality and impact over time. Cave has himself been extremely candid about his screen persona, boldly stating, ‘Any acting I’ve ever done I’ve hated. I did it three times and the experience and films got worse every time … I just can’t act … Everyone knew that I was in the wrong business’. This lack of comfort with the camera is carried over into his music videos, almost all of which stay within the limits of direct-to-camera stage-bound delivery, and highlight an unwillingness to explore the medium and break free from well-honed gestures established over a long history of live musical performance. Cave has mentioned that he ‘loathes MTV’ and dislikes the idea that ‘the life of a musician is put into the hands of a video director … with a pressure to make a certain kind of video … I will continue to make performance style video where we get up, play the song, and that’s it’. It is mostly only those videos used to promote songs from Murder Ballads (1996), possibly the most theatrical and ‘performed’ material of Cave’s musical career (as well as the most collaborative vocally), that truly depart from this form. Nevertheless the videos for ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ and ‘Henry Lee’, co-starring Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey respectively, instructively highlight the relative clumsiness and ungainliness of Cave’s screen persona. His every movement seems studied (even when plainly ‘improvised’ in the video with Dorian Lynskey, ‘Outback Outlaws’, Guardian, 24 Feb 2006 [Online], available at,329419244-117421,00.html, accessed 19 Sep 2007.  Cave, in supplementary material, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead.  Patrick Donovan, ‘Saint Nick’, The Age, 14 May 2005 [Online], available at http://, accessed 24 Sep 2007.  Susan Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London; New York, 1999), p. 156. 


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Harvey), and contrasts with the more sensual, sinewy and convincing performances of his female co-stars. Ultimately, Cave’s most celebrated contribution to the cinema has been his script for The Proposition. This is hardly surprising, as it is writing that links together Cave’s best work across the realms of music, literature and cinema. Compared to his work in the other two mediums, Cave seems more open to seeing his cinematic work as just part of a larger artistic process, and his ability to quickly produce initial screenplays has raised the possibility of a more sustained contribution. Thus, even before The Proposition’s release, Cave had completed the script for his next writing collaboration with Hillcoat, Death of a Ladies’ Man. This heightened collaborative practice extends to Cave’s soundtracks. The soundtracks of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, To Have and to Hold, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition are as much the work of such collaborators as Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey and Warren Ellis as they are Cave compositions (this is particularly true of Ellis’s violin-led contribution to The Proposition). These soundtracks also help create the all-encompassing and engulfing environments that characterise each of the Cave–Hillcoat collaborations. Listening for Nick Cave As must already be evident, Cave’s work in the cinema covers a range of areas, is spread over a significant period of time, and lacks the coherency and narrative arc of his musical career (and, arguably, his broader biography). His music can also be heard in a wide range of films, with pre-existing tracks increasingly deployed alongside pop and rock songs by other artists to help ‘wallpaper’ a particular movie’s soundtrack. Cave’s increasing popularity in this regard points towards both the relative mellowing of his musical output and his increasing recognition. His songs have been used in a wide variety of films that otherwise have no connection to him including: Shrek 2 (‘People Ain’t No Good’); Winged Migration (‘To Be by Your Side’); Zero Effect (‘Into My Arms’); Batman Forever (‘There is a Light’); and The Freshman (‘From Her to Eternity’). Despite the common complexity of Cave’s lyrics, his songs are mostly used to forge a ‘literal’ relationship between his words and what appears on screen. For example, the placement of ‘To Be by Your Side’ in Winged Migration, a documentary about the habits and flights patterns of migratory birds, is motivated by a single line, ‘Tonight I’ll be by your side but tomorrow I will fly away’. Cave’s song is accompanied by footage of birds forming into pairs, and larger flocks, and then, not surprisingly considering the lyrics, flying away.

 With a title obviously inspired by Leonard Cohen’s album of the same name, the script reportedly covers very different territory to either Ghosts… of the Civil Dead or The Proposition, and is set in contemporary England.

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


By far the most commonly cited of Cave’s songs is ‘Red Right Hand’, heard in a range of science fiction and horror films and television shows including an episode of The X-Files, Hellboy and all three entries in the Scream franchise. This choice of song is both curious and totally in keeping with the pattern outlined above. The popular use of ‘Red Right Hand’ to shorthandedly signify ideas of ‘evil’, ‘violence’, ‘horror’, ‘murder’ and ‘menace’ is related to the highly performative, almost pantomime-like quality of the song’s delivery (it is a kind of vamp). The song’s use is never based on a complete reading of the lyrics or their implication, but rather the repeated refrain of the song’s title and the growling menace of Cave’s vocal delivery (along with its overall darkly carnivalesque atmosphere). The reappearance of ‘Red Right Hand’ across a range of films and television shows demonstrates its ability to signify a real feeling of danger while also containing this through a heightened sense of its textual performance. Wings In many respects, the use of Cave’s songs on otherwise disconnected film soundtracks is his least significant contribution to the cinema (in contrast to the full soundtracks he and other members of the Bad Seeds have created). Nevertheless, Cave’s music and persona have been used talismanically by Wim Wenders, particularly through his commissioning of Cave to write and perform the title song of Until the End of the World (1991) and his much-anticipated appearance in Wings of Desire, placing him within the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll performers who dot the director’s films. This appearance sets the pattern for Cave’s subsequent, and much less successful roles in Johnny Suede (1991) and Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest (1997), as well as his over-the-top but considerably more effective turn a year or so later in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead.10 In each case Cave’s appearance is anticipated by the film’s narrative, building in such a way so as to highlight Cave’s celebrity and the somewhat disjunctive nature of each of his appearances. In the case of Wings of Desire and Johnny Suede, his name and character are introduced long before his actual physical appearance; while the rising tension of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead carves out a space for the arrival of Cave’s unhinged and excessive persona. Cave’s visually contrary character of Freak Storm in Johnny Suede, bleach-blonde and decked out totally in white, is a rather clumsy caricature of aspects of his established persona and its various musical associations. However, each of Cave’s screen performances has a musical dimension; even his role in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead can be discussed in terms of its purely acoustic effect. This pre-emption of Cave’s appearance finds its most profound rendition in Wings of Desire, highlighting his importance as a cultural figure within preunification Berlin. As Wenders has suggested, ‘Nick Cave was himself a real Berlin 10 After a long hiatus, Cave appears as a saloon singer in Andrew Dominik’s 1970s inspired Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


hero … It was inconceivable for me to make a film in Berlin without showing one of his concerts’.11 In fact, Cave becomes a key force that brings together and helps consummate the romance that increasingly drives the film (between trapeze artist Marion and ‘falling’ angel, Damiel). Cave’s music is first introduced during a scene set in Marion’s caravan, ‘The Carny’ evoking the world of the carnival and providing a somewhat melancholy backing for the bittersweet action and Marion’s breathy accompaniment. A poster for an upcoming concert emblazoned on a crumbling Berlin wall later becomes a key clue to the likely whereabouts of Marion once Damiel, an angel longing for corporeality, has fully entered the human world. Throughout, Cave is utilised to represent the physical, worldly reality of Berlin, his concert the ultimate venue and backing for the coming together of physical/romantic ideal (Marion) and once ethereal angel. Of all Cave’s appearances in the cinema, and the widespread citation of his music, this is the only moment and film that has attracted any sustained critical analysis. In fact, there is very little written generally on Cave’s contribution to the cinema beyond passing references in several of the critical articles on The Proposition. As I have already established, I think this is largely an outcome of the piecemeal nature of Cave’s contribution to cinema, its decidedly uneven quality, and the inherent difficulties of discussing a raft of different kinds of roles and activities within plainly collaborative projects.12 In his often highly theoretical essay, ‘Sound at the End of the World as We Know It’, Andrew Murphie highlights the ‘deterritorialised’ nature of Cave’s appearance in Wings of Desire, and his work and persona more generally.13 Murphie focuses upon the displaced nature of Cave, discussing, as several other writers also have, the multiple ways in which the ‘impurity’ of Cave’s persona and music (and its mixed origins) can be traced, and marking him as an ideal ‘poster-boy’ for the complex identity and subjectivity of pre-unification Berlin. Murphie, again like several other writers, discusses the parodic or pastiche-like qualities of Cave’s work. But I’m not so sure that such terms really apply to Cave’s music, or his screen persona (which is more uncomfortable than parodic). Cave himself has suggested that there is an element of parody that often underlines his musical performances, or that they are at least in danger of falling into this state, but that this quality is combined with a total commitment to 11

From Wenders’ audio commentary accompanying the out-takes included on the Anchor Bay DVD release of Wings of Desire (2002). Somewhat pompously, Wenders also suggests that it was inconceivable to make this kind of music anywhere else at the time, that it was part of the ‘climate of the city’. 12 The discussion of cinematic authorship is dominated by the analyses of the work of either directors or stars. The writing on supporting actors, scriptwriters and composers is extremely limited. Cave’s collaborative contributions across a range of roles make this discussion of authorship even more difficult. 13 Andrew Murphie, ‘Sound at the End of the World as We Know It: Nick Cave, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and a Deleuze-Guattarian Ecology of Popular Music’, Perfect Beat, 2.4 (January 1996): 18–42.

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


whatever activity he is engaged in: ‘there’s a certain way I perform on stage which I consider to be very honest, but at the same time I think it’s treading the middle ground between some kind of complete truth and parody’.14 For Murphie, such an in-between state carries over into Cave’s status as an Australian-born musician playing a derivative of various forms of American music in West Berlin. Like the character of Damiel, Cave moves from the disembodied terrain of the recording of ‘The Carny’ heard in Marion’s caravan, and the pictures that grace the album’s cover (Your Funeral … My Trial (1986)) and concert poster, to the explicitly grungy and physicalised performance of ‘From Her to Eternity’ in a nightclub at the film’s conclusion. As a number of commentators, including Murphie, have suggested, the song actually marks an alternate journey for Damiel, from the ‘eternity’ of history and the realm of the angel to the physicality of ‘her’ (the corporeal world, colour, the traces of human activity like steaming breath).15 The association of the physical world with Cave and his band is further highlighted by the presence of Cassiel (the angel who ultimately remains in the spirit world) on stage, wandering amongst the members of the band who absolutely do not register his presence in any way. At this point we also hear Cave’s thoughts, linking him to the many other inhabitants of West Berlin whose inner world we have been allowed to eavesdrop on. In many respects, Wings of Desire stands as Cave’s most successful cinematic performance because it reiterates both his iconic status and remains within the boundaries of his established musical persona. Ghosts Prior to The Proposition, Cave’s most sustained and varied contribution to the cinema was his role as actor in, composer and early scriptwriter of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. It is now difficult to trace Cave’s actual contribution to the final script, but by his own admission his initial screenplay was far more generic than that eventually used for the film, reflecting ‘knowledge’ of prison life mostly filtered through its cinematic representation. The close correspondence of the film’s representation of contemporary prison life to actual developments in homogenising prison design and management was actually the outcome of Hillcoat and co-producer Evan English’s extensive research in America and elsewhere. So the script probably contains some traces of Cave’s writing, and he still retains a co-screenwriter credit, but his most striking contribution to the film, along with the soundtrack, is his ‘cameo’ performance as the inmate Maynard. Cave wrote his own dialogue on scraps of paper, and the chaotic, manic and inherently violent and misanthropic nature of his character is reflected in the scatological scrawl of words


Cave qtd. in Murphie, ‘Sound at the End of the World’, p. 37. See Broadhurst, Liminal Acts, p. 122.



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

and images etched onto the paper that represents his script.16 His dialogue mostly consists of a tirade of sometimes funny but often racist abuse that is heard whether the character is on- or off-screen (so he maintains a significant aural presence throughout the film’s last third). In keeping with the pattern outlined earlier, Cave’s appearance, although not built up to in quite the same way, has a significant destabilising effect upon the world of the film. The shooting script actually contained blank pages ‘signifying’ the arrival of his character. Thus, his emergence into the film is singled out as a significant, unmanageable, even cataclysmic event in the script’s structure. Maynard’s first line of dialogue, ‘There goes the neighbourhood’, underlines this rupturing effect. It is quite some achievement that Cave is able to effect such menace as close to half of the film’s cast had actually served time in prison. Cave’s violent, funny and undisciplined performance is by far his most successful onscreen creation. I think this is due to the heightened theatricality of his performance and character, as well as its reliance upon the aural or sonic dimensions of his persona. Thus, it has some of the qualities of a solo and draws heavily upon the connotations of violence, discordance and dark, elemental morality associated with Cave’s image at this time. Despite his close association with Hillcoat, Cave has expressed some animosity about the way in which his celebrity was used to promote the film, to the point of overemphasising his contribution as a writer – in the middle of a period when Cave was also broadening his writing skills as a novelist with And the Ass Saw the Angel – and actor. Some of the film’s publicity used Cave’s image and name as prominent elements. Nevertheless, despite the relative brevity of his performance, and the almost ‘solo’ qualities of many of the shots he occupies, this promotion of Cave as a prominent aspect or ‘image’ of the film is not completely misleading. Cave learnt much about the business of filmmaking from his piecemeal contribution to Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, most particularly about the demands that would be placed upon him as a star associated with relatively low-scale film production. This experience was essential to his role on The Proposition. Propositions The Proposition was for me like being in the middle of a Nick Cave song …. The beauty of the script is that it is such a simple story and yet it is nuanced.17

In some ways, Cave’s scattered earlier work is merely an apprenticeship for his more sustained work on The Proposition, one of the most critically acclaimed Australian films of the last ten years. Unlike his initial draft script for Ghosts… of 16 A scanned image of this battered page is included as a special feature on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead’s DVD release. 17 Guy Pearce qtd. in Peter Galvin, ‘The Proposition’, IF, 80 (September 2005): 31.

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


the Civil Dead, Cave’s script for The Proposition was closely adhered to during production, with few changes occurring between the shooting script and what appears on screen. The gestation of the project speaks volumes about Cave’s reluctance to enter into a more full-scale contribution to the cinema. Although it stems from an initial idea stretching back over 20 years, it was only after Hillcoat had tried other professional scriptwriters that Cave was brought in to work on a draft (it was envisioned that his script would then be ‘polished’ and structured by a professional scriptwriter). This draft, completed over a period of only three weeks, became the basis of the shooting script for the finished film (with relatively small changes). Cave’s straight-ahead approach to writing the script contrasted sharply with Hillcoat’s heavily research driven working method. Cave’s first draft was completed and submitted in 2001. The Victorian-era setting of the film, and its relatively self-conscious mix of tones, is in keeping with the language and imagery of several of the songs he was also writing or releasing around this time such as ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow’ and ‘Gates to the Garden’. Nevertheless, writers from other mediums often bring verbosity to their scriptwriting contributions, but Cave’s dialogue and his script’s barebones narrative structure are mostly a model of restraint and sparsity – perhaps almost too much so. Cave’s script relies a little too heavily on particular ideas about the American Western and how it can be adapted to the frontier Australian context. In various interviews, Cave commented upon (inaccurately) both the lack of Australian Westerns and the very different, almost obverse national narrative they can be used to tell. Thus, Cave relies upon a very conventional idea of ‘transcendental failure’ and its significance as a common trope of the story told about white Australia’s relationship to the land. The Proposition’s appropriation of several of the American Western’s rudimentary tropes is mostly utilised to counter or even reverse core ideas of progress, nostalgia and Manifest Destiny that underlie many of the traditional and mythical dimensions of the genre. It is of course much more productive to discuss The Proposition in relation to what is often called the revisionist or anti-Western, a long-running variation on the genre which finds its strongest current in such 1970s American films as Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). The shifting morality, subjectivity, and perspective of these films, as well as their melancholy focus on what might be called the ‘end’ as much as the beginning of ‘things’, is a key influence on Cave’s script and the project’s overall sensibility. Like many of these films, The Proposition mostly avoids clear-cut moral distinctions (though not stereotypes), focusing instead on the experiential immediacy and interconnectedness of environments and actions. As Evan Williams has suggested, ‘I have rarely seen a film in which the sheer menace of the landscape is so critical in shaping the characters’ lives’.18

Evan Williams, ‘No Hero to Be Found’, Weekend Australian: Review (8 Oct 2005):



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Both the finished film, and Cave’s shooting script, are episodic constructions in which each scene is built around a particular tonal effect, emphasising the troublingly sensual relation of bodies to the world that ‘surrounds’ them. As Martin Flanagan argues, ‘each and every setting is brilliant, in the sense that it is dazzling to the senses’.19 Thus, although the film mostly contains relatively rudimentary dialogue, and centres around a character (Charlie Burns) who speaks very little (totally in keeping with the stoicism of many such characters bent on revenge in the Western), it tries a little too hard to vary this pattern of speech by introducing a highly florid bounty hunter, highlighting the literary pretensions of the central, almost bohemian ‘villain’ (‘learned outlaw’, Arthur Burns), and counterpointing the general mayhem of the film’s action with the genteel politeness of the courtly relationship and dialogue of Captain Morris Stanley and his wife Martha. Some of Stanley’s lines – including such nuggets as ‘Australia … what fresh hell is this?’, and ‘I will civilise this place’ – are a little too clumsy, literary and statement-like to be truly convincing or organic. However, it is often in these scenes and snatches of dialogue that Cave’s script comes closest to the dramatic and literary qualities of his lyrics. As Adrian Martin has suggested, the structure of Cave’s script, and its intermingling of ‘concentrated savagery … with unexpected passages of lyricism’, brings it close to the experience of Cave’s music.20 Cave has himself recognised the parallels between the script and his music: ‘It’s very similar to the way my band operates. There are moments of intense violence and there are also moments of long, lyrical, quiet sadness’.21 Several other commentators have also compared the film’s elemental and overall contrapuntal structure to Cave’s music: ‘the movie is drunk on the same heady mix of poetic melancholy and Biblical violence that stalks the singer’s musical hinterland’.22 Meanwhile, David Hoskin has argued that such a comparison can help shift focus and allow us to appreciate the film’s core qualities: ‘If we can ignore the story as it plods to its fairly predictable conclusion, perhaps we can discern an attempt to try and apply the techniques of a different art form altogether. Paintings and songs aren’t duty-bound to worry overmuch about storytelling; it’s imagery, rhythms, impressions that are prioritised’.23 I’m not so sure that Cave’s script isn’t successful in terms of telling an elemental, full-blooded, almost Biblical story, but it certainly does provide a refreshing contribution to the ranks of Australian screenplays that are commonly defined by the lack of a strong authorial voice, recessive characters, and overly schematic plotting and character motivation. Cave’s stripped back, often direct, almost simplistic screenplay, helps propel the viewer into the very corporeal Martin Flanagan, ‘Evil in Pictures’, Saturday Age: A2 (5 Nov 2005): 18. Adrian Martin, ‘The Proposition’, Film Comment, 42.3 (May–June 2006): 73. 21 Stephen Dalton, ‘Nick and John’s Excellent Adventure’, Sunday Age: Preview (25 Sep 2005): 4. 22 Ibid. 23 David Hoskin, ‘Marked by Darkness and by Blood and by a Thousand Powder Burns’, Metro, 146–7 (2005): 27. 19 20

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


world conjured up on screen. There is also no mistaking the script’s origins, its combination of tones, American, Australian and almost Classical influences and motivations, totally in keeping with such Cave compositions as ‘Tupelo’ and ‘The Mercy Seat’, and much of Murder Ballads and Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) albums. It has both a Spartan purity and presents itself as a gumbo of varied influences, literary references and viewing practices. The Proposition is also one in a long line of Westerns that emphasise environment as much as character and narrative. Interestingly, prior to commencing production, Cave had never visited the region the film was to be made in (Winton, Central Queensland). Thus, the script refers to an abstract environment or landscape, an elemental and almost imaginary (or at least remembered) realm that connotes particularly stark ideas about the Australian ‘outback’. The film therefore generates a curious, bifurcated view of landscape. In many ways this view is regressive, relying upon a common way of representing the land as a primeval, hostile, blindingly lit and uncultured domain. This view is common to many Australian films that fail to develop or explore a deeper connection to the land, seeing it as an unoccupied terrain rather than an environment marked by Aboriginal history (and occupation), or as a setting that requires different ways of viewing and conceptualising it (perhaps not as a landscape in the conventional sense).24 Nevertheless, and as is evident in the documentary included as a ‘special feature’ on the film’s DVD release, the filmmakers were, or at least became, explicitly conscious of the still very different relation of the white and Aboriginal communities to the land. During production, they were very careful to consult indigenous advisors on all the locations they used. But although during the publicity tour for the film both Hillcoat and Cave commonly discussed a deep concern for Aboriginal history and the kinds of stories of resistance and collaboration that are seldom told, The Proposition itself is only partially successful in its attempts to ‘flesh-out’ these stories. I think it can be argued that Cave and Hillcoat’s reading of their own film, and its intercession in debates about the representation of Aboriginality, as well as its status as the first true Australian Western, demonstrate a limited knowledge of Australian cinema and contemporary cultural debates. Although it is definitely one of the richest Australian variations upon the Western genre, it has to sit alongside earlier reinventions of the form in such films as The Overlanders (1946), The Man from Snowy River (1982), Quigley Down Under (1990) and, even more recently, The Tracker (2002). It is also necessary to cite such films as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) as earlier, more complete and troubling portraits of colonial Aboriginal resistance. In some ways these elements seem to be merely appropriated by The Proposition, an aspect which is most evident in the film’s use of period and mockperiod photographs in its opening and closing credits. I think these images, and 24 For further discussion of these issues in Australian cinema see Ross Gibson, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Bloomington, IN; Indianapolis, IN, 1992), pp. 63–81.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


how they are framed and used, tells us a considerable amount about the approach and structure of the film. Carol Hart argues that these photographs establish a framework to read the whole film as ‘a series of snap-shots’.25 Thus, a key function of these photographs (and they are included as a direction in Cave’s shooting script) is to place the characters within an historical moment, one which the film will not fully filter or re-present for us. Like the similar opening of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), this technique, and the film as a whole, attempts to immerse us in an historical world, one not obscured by the patina of ‘history’. But these images are also used to shock and upset the viewer, to link the film to a history of genocide and incarceration that is only touched upon and relatively indirectly suggested elsewhere. As Flanagan suggests in his understandably conflicted article on the film: ‘It gains its power by suggesting highly serious themes which it then fails to deliver on in any large or meaningful way, leaving us instead with images of chaotic violence in a harshly beautiful land’.26 However, both Flanagan and Martin see this irreconcilability as amongst the film’s most profound contributions. It is this sense of chaos or disorientation, a feeling for the brutal fragility of things that is ultimately Cave’s greatest gift to the cinema. After the somewhat less than cathartic killings that mark the film’s final scene, leaving us uncertain of the fate of most of the characters, Charlie wanders outside to be with his brother Arthur who is slowly dying from the gunshot wound he has inflicted. As each gaze out into a quiet sunset, Arthur pointedly asks Charlie ‘What are you going to do now?’ This combination of brutality, Biblical morality, elemental conflict, grace-like quiet, lyricism, total commitment to the material and a degree of self-consciousness, provides a less than neat but piquant summary of Cave’s work in the cinema. As the scene fades, yearning music and lyrics carry us out of the film, presenting riddles and questions that forever place the action within a broader cosmic realm where all of the elements, animate and inanimate, talk to one another: ‘No’, said the moon that rose from his sleep ‘No’, said the cry of the dying sun ‘No’, said the planets that started to weep ‘Yes’, said the rider and laid down his gun.27

Carol Hart, ‘Portraits of Settler History in The Proposition’, Senses of Cinema 38, January–March 2006 [Online], available at proposition.html, accessed 30 Aug 2007. 26 Flanagan, ‘Evil in Pictures’, p. 18. 27 Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, ‘The Rider Part 2’, The Proposition Original Soundtrack, CD (Mute Records, 2005). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 25

Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema


Bibliography Baker, Tiffany, ‘In My Own Words’, Sunday Herald Sun (25 Sep 2005): 12. Broadhurst, Susan, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (London; New York: Cassell, 1999). Cave, Nick and Warren Ellis, The Proposition Original Soundtrack, CD (Mute Records, 2005). Dalton, Stephen, ‘Nick and John’s Excellent Adventure’, Sunday Age: Preview (25 Sep 2005): 4. Donovan, Patrick, ‘Saint Nick’, The Age, 14 May 2005 [Online], available at, accessed 24 Sep 2007. Flanagan, Martin, ‘Evil in Pictures’, Saturday Age: A2 (5 Nov 2005): 18. Galvin, Peter, ‘The Proposition’, IF, 80 (September 2005): 31. Gibson, Ross, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Bloomington, IN; Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992). Hart, Carol, ‘Portraits of Settler History in The Proposition’, Senses of Cinema 38, January–March 2006 [Online], available at contents/06/38/proposition.html, accessed 30 Aug 2007. Hillcoat, John, dir., Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, 1988, DVD (Umbrella Entertainment, 2003). ——, The Proposition (Surefire Film 3 Production, 2005). Hoskin, David, ‘Marked by Darkness and by Blood and by a Thousand Powder Burns’, Metro, 146–7 (2005): 27. Lynskey, Dorian, ‘Outback Outlaws’, Guardian, 24 Feb 2006 [Online], available at,329419244-117421,00.html, accessed 19 Sep 2007. Martin, Adrian, ‘The Proposition’, Film Comment, 42.3 (May–June 2006): 73. Murphie, Andrew, ‘Sound at the End of the World as We Know It: Nick Cave, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and a Deleuze-Guattarian Ecology of Popular Music’, Perfect Beat, 2.4 (January 1996): 18–42. Roddick, Nick, ‘Nick Cave Made Us a Proposition’, The Script Factory, 22 Mar 2006 [Online], available at Article_38.html, accessed 22 Sep 2007. Wenders, Wim, dir., Wings of Desire, DVD (Roadmovies Filmproduktion,1987). Williams, Evan, ‘No Hero to Be Found’, Weekend Australian: Review (8 Oct 2005): 23.

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Chapter 8

Grinderman: All Stripped Down Angela Jones

When Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds side-project, Grinderman – with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martin Casey and Jim Sclavunos – released their self-titled debut in 2007, it was widely hailed by fans, critics and, at times, even the band itself, as something of a return to rock ’n’ roll’s ‘roots’ – in raw rhythm ’n’ blues, gritty feedback and distortion, tight, pounding rhythms, and ‘live’-sounding production aesthetics. Lyrically and musically, Grinderman enacts a back-to-basics approach to the performance conventions and genre-rules of rock ’n’ roll; explicitly eschewing the crisp production, elaborate orchestration and traditional thematic concerns which have characterised Cave’s more recent work with the Bad Seeds, in favour of a typically lean, blunt mode of delivery. As Cave suggested in an interview, the ‘defining idea’ for the album was to have ‘everything stripped down and to the point’; and indeed, from the opening line of Cave’s introductory ‘statement of intent’ – ‘I had to get up to get down and start all over again’ – to the cover-image of a baboon caught fiddling with himself beneath the spotlight of an empty stage, I would argue that this is also, in a sense, what the album is about. Grinderman is the performance of stripping down and starting from scratch; it ‘makes the communicative process itself, the use of language and gesture, the focus of attention’. Therefore, in this chapter I wish to discuss the ways in which Grinderman’s ‘stripped down’ approach to rock ’n’ roll can be understood as self-reflexively drawing attention to the way the album is constructed as a performance. Both formally and thematically, Grinderman executes this ‘stripped down’ approach in a manner which is, at once, revealing and self-conscious, seductive and abrasive, serious and playful, knowing and sincere – simultaneously invoking and compromising ‘the [Romantic] belief that listening to someone’s music means getting to know them, getting access to their souls and sensibilities’. That is, on the one hand, Grinderman appears to allow the audience direct access to a private scene of musical creation; like a strip-tease, it is offered up to the listener as a 

Cave quoted in Mark Masters, ‘Pitchfork: Interview: Grinderman’ [Online], available at, accessed 3 Dec 2007.  Simon Frith, Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford, 1996) p. 208.  Simon Frith, ‘Art Versus Technology: The Strange Case of Pop’, Media, Culture and Society 8:3 (1985): 267.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


revealing gesture – a ‘promise’ – to peel away the layers and expose the rock star stripped of his ‘spandex’ and fancy dance moves. At the same time, however (and also like a strip-tease), what is ‘revealed’, in the end, is a performance; the act of stripping down is a pose, a gesture. This is not to suggest that they are simply going through the motions – that it’s all an empty charade; on the contrary, I believe Grinderman is genuine in its posing. It is committed to the artifice. This is what popular music theorist Simon Frith refers to as the camp point that the truth of a feeling is an aesthetic truth, not a moral one; it can only be judged formally, as a matter of gestural grace. ‘Sincerity,’ in short, cannot be measured by searching for what lies behind the performance; if we are moved by a performer we are moved by what we immediately hear and see.

Or, as Evelyn McDonnell suggests: ‘Sometimes the more artificial something seems, the more real it is’. That is to say, it is the gesture itself, rather than what lies behind it, which is deemed revealing or ‘truthful’; the artifice becomes a revelation. Grinderman presents itself as rock ’n’ roll stripped of refinement; in which all the superfluous gloss and polish which might otherwise serve to make the album more ‘palatable’ to a wider audience – overt post-production effects, polite chitchat, what Tom Waits once referred to as ‘aural sheen’ – is deliberately scrubbed away. The album appears to make few concessions to mainstream, radio-friendly pop musical discourses, with Cave openly declaring in interviews: ‘We don’t have to sell any records. We don’t have to impress anyone’. The result is, predictably enough, pretty nasty: its sound is brutal; its lyrics decidedly un-PC; its cover artwork vulgar and quite inappropriate. 

This idea of the revealing gesture as a ‘promise’ is a re-working of Frith’s suggestion that: ‘For the pop star the “real me” is a promise that lies in the way we hear the voice, just as for a film star the “real” person is to be found in the secret of their look’. Frith, Performing Rites, p. 199. Likewise, the reference to the rock star’s ‘spandex’ is taken from a point Cave makes in an interview when he says: ‘Seeing the world at 30 is different than how you see it at 50 no matter how much spandex you put on him’. A.D. Amorosi, ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’, Harp [Online], available at http://www.harpmagazine. com/articles/detail.cfm?article_id+5336, accessed 3 Dec 2007. I will return to both of these points later in the chapter.  Frith, Performing Rites, p. 215.  Evelyn McDonnell, ‘Re-Creation’, in Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell (eds), Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth (London, 1999) p. 77.  Mark Rowland, ‘Tom Waits is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)’, in Mac Montandon (ed.), Innocent When You Dream. Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews (New York, 2005) p. 109.  Iain Shedden, ‘Old Nick’s Still Raising Hell’, The Weekend Australian Review (23– 4 Feb 2008): 4.

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


In reviews and publicity for Grinderman, the terms ‘rock’ and ‘rock ’n’ roll’ are invoked so frequently – usually qualified by such suitably suggestive adjectives as ‘rough ’n’ ready’ and ‘low-down-dirty’ – as to become virtually synonymous with the album; and indeed, by taking such a ‘stripped down’ approach, Grinderman participates in a long and venerable rock ’n’ roll tradition, which equates authenticity with ‘a return to the “roots” of music-making – the live excitement voice/guitar/ drums line-ups’. ‘Raw’, ‘immediate’, ‘blunt’, ‘direct’ – these are all stylistic terms which have been used to describe Grinderman (often in direct contrast to the Bad Seeds), and they circulate throughout discourses of rock ’n’ roll, as highly valued signifiers of a particular brand of musical realism. As Frith explains: ‘The continuing core of rock ideology is that raw sounds are more authentic than cooked sounds’.10 However, while these terms may function usefully as musical signifiers – used to describe certain qualities of sounds and styles of music – their designation, whilst not exactly arbitrary, nonetheless remains less than objective. To put it simply, what is heard as ‘raw’ or ‘stripped down’ in one genre of music (say, bluegrass) may be quite different to what is heard as ‘raw’ or ‘stripped down’ in another (hip-hop).11 In the case of Grinderman, it often appears that part of what this ‘stripped down’ approach entails is the deliberate removal or ‘breaking down’ of those musical and lyrical features which might otherwise characterise a Bad Seeds record; thus, the album comes in at under 40 minutes – contrasting sharply with the Bad Seeds’ previous release, a double-album – and the ‘lo-fi’ production values endow the overall sound with an immediacy and physicality reminiscent of analogue recordings.12 The lyrical content and delivery is similarly ‘stripped down and to the point’, typically eschewing the elegant poetical cadences and florid language for which Cave is renowned – what he now describes, rather unpoetically, as ‘marriage, flowers, shit like that’ – opting rather for a taut, pithy vernacular which often takes on an exceedingly abrupt, confrontational, seemingly uncensored tone.13 Even the band itself is an abbreviated, ‘stripped-down’ version of the Bad Seeds – the Bad Seeds ‘broken down’ into a ‘more compact unit of players’ – and while most of the band-members are multi-instrumentalists, their sound remains, for the most part, that of a classic, tight four-piece; what one reviewer described

Frith, ‘Art Versus Technology: The Strange Case of Pop’, p. 266. Ibid. 11 And, moreover, the value of such terms – as signifiers of truthfulness or realism in music – also varies greatly from one genre to another: in short, not all genres place such a high value on ‘authenticity’. 12 ‘Lo-fi’ is a pop musical abbreviation of ‘low-fidelity’, which is essentially the opposite of what would normally be designated by the term ‘high-fidelity’; that is, distortion, crackling, a more intimate, rough quality of recording which often resembles those of analogue and home-made recordings. 13 Jim Robinson, ‘I’m 50. My Mind’s a Swamp’, Uncut (Feb 2008): 55. 10

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


as ‘the sound of four musicians having a grand time, turning the volume up to 11 and really cutting loose’.14 This image of Grinderman as ‘the sound of four musicians having a grand time’ is particularly suggestive, capturing at once the prevailing image of the band as it is put forward both within the popular media, and within the framework of the album itself. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and playfulness between the musicians which comes across not only in interviews and publicity but also on record; throughout the album Cave frequently calls on his band-mates, both individually and as a group (‘C’mon Grindermen!’), and they respond in kind, forming a particularly ‘blokey’ kind of call-and-response. Apparently, many of Grinderman’s songs evolved collaboratively, out of the musicians jamming together, and on-record they retain a raw, slightly unstable feel, as if still in an embryonic stage of development and not yet entirely under the musicians’ control. In a manoeuvre reminiscent of that which Bob Dylan and The Band performed exactly 40 years earlier on The Basement Tapes, Grinderman ostensibly finds Cave, Ellis, Sclavunos and Casey closing ranks and ‘heading down to the basement’ – ‘exorcising their mid-life demons … and generally sounding like very bad men – in a very good way, of course’.15 Indeed, the album is often constructed as an exercise conducted largely for the band-members’ own amusement more than anything else; the kind of ‘low-down-dirty’ rock ’n’ roll four guys make when they think they’re alone and no-one is watching. ‘Get It On’ I had to get up to get down and start all over again. Head on down to the basement and shout: Kick those white mice and black dogs out! Kick those white mice and baboons out! Kick those baboons and all the motherfuckers out! And get it on! Get it on! On the day that you got born …16

And so Grinderman begins, with Cave’s self-proclaimed ‘statement of intent’ issued against a crackling silence, kick-starting the album and setting the ‘scene’ for the proceedings in no uncertain terms. It is all conducted in a manner which is extremely no-nonsense: crisp and unflinching, Cave spits out each word as if 14

Amorosi, ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’, and Ted Kord, ‘Editorial Reviews from’ [Online], available at, accessed 3 Dec 2007. 15 This quote is taken from a review in the Uncut Best of 2007 booklet (in which Grinderman ranked 16 out of 50) accompanying Uncut (Jan 2008): 14. 16 Grinderman, ‘Get It On’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


gunning down targets one by one; the litany of ‘white mice’, ‘black dogs’ and ‘baboons’ summoned and extinguished in a rapid succession of swift staccato bursts. Indeed, there is a forcefulness to Cave’s delivery here which seems, at times, to be almost beyond his control; snowballing rapidly from casual defiance to seething hostility to inarticulate rage, as if driven by an ever-quickening momentum not entirely of his own making until, by the second last line – ‘kick those baboons and all the motherfuckers out’ – it threatens to engulf him completely. It is at this point – the point at which any trace of civility has been erased from Cave’s voice, now rendered almost otherworldly with strangulated rage – that the sound bottoms out in a blistering cavalcade of feedback and distortion, and reinforcement appears in the form of his band-mates, who join him for a triumphant rally call of ‘Get It On!’17 It is a startling effective introduction to the album, carried almost entirely by the strength and personality of Cave’s voice – once again ‘stripped down and to the point’ – the compressed drama of it all announced and executed before the first track has even ‘officially’ begun. Apparently the specific imagery used here (the ‘white mice’ ‘black dogs’ and so forth) form part of a personal repertoire of images Cave refers to as ‘enemies of creation’: ‘Churchill has his black dogs and Kafka, his white mice – enemies of creation taking animal form – well, I get the Baboons. The Baboons … are not exactly depression, rather a state of anti-inspiration’.18 One can only imagine what Kafka and Churchill would have made of their personal demons being exorcised in such a setting, and, in a sense, that’s precisely the point: as they appear in the introduction to ‘Get It On’, and thus Grinderman as a whole, Kafka’s ‘white mice’ and Churchill’s ‘black dog’ become part of an altogether different scene, in which their presence constitutes an explicitly unwanted – and unwonted – intrusion. They are made to appear absurd, ridiculous and, ultimately, insignificant; the implication perhaps being that if Kafka and Churchill had also had access to a Fender telecaster and a Marshall stack they, too, might have triumphed more easily over their own ‘enemies of creation’. And what better statement of intent for a band called ‘Grinderman’? In the first 30 seconds of their debut album, they have taken these personalised symbols of ‘enemies of creation’ – so singularly powerful in other contexts – and fed them 17 This idea of Cave’s voice as rendered otherworldly with rage is a deliberate reference to Steven Connor’s description of ‘the voice of rage’:

In the exercise of vocal hostility – rage, aggression, condemnation, and so on – the action of the voice upon itself is clearly visible and audible. In these modes, the voice seems to demonstrate its power to inflict harm by attacking itself, taking itself as an object or substance which may be subjected to injuring or exterminating assault. It may enact the envelopment or strangulation of its object; or it may scatter or pulverize its own forms and tonalities. Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford, 2000), p. 37. 18 Janine Barrand and Jamie Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne, 2007), insert between pp. 82–3.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


into the grinder-mill of rock ’n’ roll, where they are battered to within an inch of their lives and sucked into a vortex of feedback and distortion. Indeed, if the rest of the song, as Cave suggests, enacts ‘a lament for the messianic rock n’ roll hero’ – a ‘hero’ bearing more than a passing resemblance to the original ‘Grinder Man’ figure on whom both band and album are based – then it appears the function of the introductory preamble is essentially to begin by wiping the slate clean, so to speak.19 And it achieves this, of course, in time-honoured rock ’n’ roll fashion, by ‘heading down to the basement’. The scene of the ‘basement’ – or ‘garage’ – has long assumed an idealised status within rock ’n’ roll ideology as a sanctified space of (male) musical solidarity and collaboration, away from the dizzying excesses and pressures of ‘show-business’.20 Indeed, there is an entire genre of rock music named after it – ‘garage rock’ – which is typified by similar traits to those of Grinderman: distortion, feedback, ‘lo-fi’ production and an emphasis on egalitarianism (‘Check your ego at the rehearsal room door’).21 In a sense, the basement is like the great ‘equalizer’: in here there are no fans, no critics, no groupies – in short, no audience to please but oneself and one’s peers (who may, in fact, make the harshest critics, but that is not part of the ‘idealised’ scene).22 It is the scene of raw, unfettered musical creation – the scene-behind-the-scenes – and for this reason necessarily remains shrouded in secrecy; like the idealised ‘writer’s room’ or ‘artist’s studio’, the rehearsal room 19

Cave quoted in Anon. ‘About the Artist. Grinderman Song by Song’ [Online], available at, accessed 3 Dec 2007. 20 Within rock ideology, the most obvious and pertinent example of this kind of artistic ‘aura’ surrounding the basement is the mythology which has been built up around Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. The Basement Tapes were the product of Dylan’s recovery following a ‘mysterious’ motorcycle accident at the height of his fame in 1966, during which time he went into ‘seclusion’ and, with the group of musicians who had formed his backing band – The Band – on his previous tours, began casually playing and recording music, ‘taping more than a hundred performances of commonplace or original songs’, in the basement of a house known as ‘Big Pink’. It was music they never intended to release, and the tapes themselves were not officially released until 1975; however, recordings of the sessions soon leaked out to the public and circulated as bootlegs. Thus ‘The Basement Tapes’ were born; as Greil Marcus writes: ‘The basement tapes – the name shifted slightly in the journey to contraband – became a talisman, a public secret, and then a legend, a fable of retreat and refashioning’. Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York, 1997), p. xviii. 21 Deena Weinstein, ‘All Singers Are Dicks’, Popular Music and Society 27:3 (2004): 325. 22 Weinstein addresses this contradiction – between the ideal and the reality – in her essay ‘All Singers Are Dicks’, arguing: ‘Despite the ideology that all band members are equal contributors and participants, bands are rife with perceived and actual inequalities, which contradict the belief that all members have put in the same time, effort, money, risk, and delay in starting other possible careers’. See Weinstein, ‘All Singers are Dicks’, p. 326.

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


‘holds a special place in our imaginations because it is mysterious’.23 And it is into this ‘mysterious’ space that Grinderman ostensibly allows its audience, as is acknowledged by the slightly conspiratorial tone Cave adopts whilst delivering the opening line, as if he has decided that we are to be let in on a secret, and which also suggests that, whatever other purpose the ‘statement of intent’ might serve, it is also being delivered for our benefit. And this brings me to the next point, which is that at the same time as Cave is kicking the ‘baboons’, ‘white mice’ and ‘black dogs’ out, he is also, simultaneously, letting us in and not only that, but his delivery suggests that we have to choose sides: are we one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’? Are we ‘in’ or are we ‘out’? Thus, the introductory preamble not only sets the scene, it also establishes its boundaries: there is a clear distinction established between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, ‘us’ and ‘them’; and Cave’s performance here crosses over, or rather, invites the audience to cross over the threshold (whilst keeping the boundary intact). (Indeed, even the exorcism itself is a form of ‘crossing over’; firstly in the sense of expelling the ‘white mice’, ‘black dogs’ and ‘baboons’, but also in the sense that the images themselves are, at once, both private and public, inner and outer – supposedly personal demons which are, nonetheless, a matter of public record.) Listening to Grinderman is akin to being granted a back-stage pass; it offers to take the audience ‘behind-the-scenes’, to hear and see the machinations (and puppetry) of the rock ’n’ roll event as it is being constructed. In doing so, it constructs a dramatic scenario which is both ‘real’, in the sense that it is happening now, as I press ‘play’ on my CD player, and ‘unreal’, in the sense that, as a recorded musical ‘event’, the other party is implied without actually being present. Frith makes this point brilliantly when he writes: I listen to records in the full knowledge that what I hear is something that never existed, that never could exist, as a ‘performance’, something happening in a single time and space; nevertheless, it is now happening, in a single time and space: it is thus a performance and I hear it as one.24

That is to say, regardless of when the event referred to actually took place, or if it even took place at all, as a dramatic scenario, it is happening right now and ‘we’ (the audience) are a part of it. And this, in turn, raises a number of questions regarding the audience’s role in Grinderman’s ‘stripped down’ approach, which I will come to shortly.

Barrand and Fox, Nick Cave Stories, p. 106. Frith, Performing Rites, p. 211.

23 24


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

‘Setting the Scene’: Grinderman’s CD Artwork There are only two images adorning the Grinderman CD; the rest of the packaging is entirely black, save for the details of song-titles and credits. The cover-image is a computer-animated depiction of a baboon cowering beneath the spotlight of an empty stage while a neon sign, bearing the band’s name in bold letters, flares up above: ‘GRINDERMAN’. The baboon appears to have been caught in the act of self-gratification, and he stands exposed and immobile, like a deer caught in the headlights, his hind legs fixed to the spot while his hands cover his crotch in a belated attempt at modesty. His facial expression is the very image of mute incomprehension and blank terror, as he stares in the direction of the spotlight’s glare … and presumably, his audience. The picture on the inside of the CD sleeve, however, depicts quite a different ‘scene’: a photograph of the four band-members seated around a dimly lit rehearsal room – what appears to be a basement – crowded with various pieces of musical equipment. The photograph is beautifully lit and framed, but has an un-posed quality about it: it appears to capture the band mid-song, although all the men remain seated – aside from the drummer, framed in the middle of the shot – and none make eye-contact with either the camera or each other. The room glows red in the lamp-light (the walls and rugs are also red), casting warm shadows across the walls, and despite the lack of any obvious camaraderie between the musicians, there is nonetheless a sense of solidarity, even cosiness, to the way they are framed here. The cloistered, private space of the rehearsal room could not be further removed from the garish lights and (indecent) exposure of the baboon stranded on-stage, and, in a sense, the two images are the antithesis of one another. On the one hand, the picture on the inner-sleeve of the CD foldout depicts an ‘authentic’ scene of rock ’n’ roll creation: a seemingly un-posed snap-shot of the band jamming together as a band, secluded from the prying eyes (and ears) of the public and the commercial constraints that (recognition of) such a public often implies. The rehearsal room is depicted here as a kind of inner sanctum or ‘boy’s-own’ space; and indeed, the entire picture has an idealised, womb-like quality to it which I am sure would produce an extremely entertaining Freudian reading: the mood-lighting, the mirrors and red walls, the voyeuristic camera angle, the almost gratuitous display of musical equipment – not just instruments but a surfeit of leads, amps, fold-back speakers and effects pedals. If the inner-sleeve image is akin to a male musicians’ wetdream, however, then the cover has the surreal quality of a nightmare: the gaudy spectacle of the performing monkey is depicted here as not only humiliating, but freakish and unnatural (this is further reinforced by the apocalyptic overtones of the torrential down-pour). Unlike the band pictured inside, the monkey is unable to ignore the viewer’s gaze; on the contrary, he is trapped by it, reduced to an obscene object of public display.25 It equates the vulnerability and exposure of exorcising 25 This idea of the performing monkey as an object or victim of sadistic humour (or cruelty) is also raised by the band in relation to the ‘Grinderman’ music video, which

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


one’s inner demons in public with self-gratification; as Cave states: ‘That’s what this whole record’s about. [Cave makes a masturbation motion with his hand and arm.] Are you going to write that I made a masturbation thing?’26 Grinderman’s art-work brings these two opposing images together as twin sides of the same coin; one is literally the flipside of the other. The picture of the baboon is exposed on the cover as an object of public display, to be manhandled and scrutinised by consumers and other casual observers; the image of the band rehearsing, by contrast, is tucked away on the inner-sleeve of the fold-out, only to be revealed by more gentle tactile manoeuvring. Indeed, one could argue that the act of opening out the fold-out to ‘reveal’ the band rehearsing inside is a revelatory gesture in itself – an act of uncovering or ‘stripping down’ – this time conducted on the audience’s part. And this, of course, raises the question of the viewer: what is our role in all of this? I mentioned earlier that listening to Grinderman is akin to being granted a back-stage pass – the kind of music four musicians make when they think they are alone and no-one is watching (or listening) – and I believe this is central to the album’s appeal. As a listener – and as a woman listener at that – part of the pleasure I take in Grinderman derives from the way the album appears to offer a glimpse into the unreconstructed male psyche: what the middle-aged rock star would sing about if he was to articulate what is really on his mind. Like the picture shown on the inner-sleeve, the world Grinderman constructs and inhabits often appears as a self-enclosed universe, a secluded ‘boy’s-own’ space, where men can be men without the need for polite chit-chat or other social courtesies – hence the mirrors and the absence of any signs of the ‘outside’ world, and the almost voyeuristic camera angle – as if allowing the viewer privileged access into a private scene of musical creation. This is not to suggest that the listener’s pleasure is entirely vicarious or voyeuristic, as if we experience their pleasure by proxy – by ‘listening in’, as it were. On the contrary, I argue that it is because we are active participants in a game that is being played, a game which is, perhaps, most pronounced when it appears we are being deliberately ignored, as in the introduction to ‘No Pussy Blues’, as I will discuss further below. That is, it is not simply that Grinderman is ‘the sound of four musicians having a grand time’ when they think they are alone and no-one is watching; rather, it is the performance of ‘four musicians having a grand time’ – it is that they know we are watching and we know they know! Indeed, there is something very knowing and self-conscious about the way Grinderman appears to reduce rock ’n’ roll to its most basic components, Martin Casey describes: ‘In the video we made for the song Grinderman, the ape, trapped by the lurid porno lights, flails ineffectually, while off-stage, the organ-grinder, God, the Grinderman, cranks the handle that makes him dance’. Casey concludes by offering the final tantalising suggestion that: ‘This would seem to be some kind of clue’. Casey quoted in Anon., ‘About the Artist. Grinderman Song by Song’. 26 Amorosi, ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

which not only registers an awareness of an (implied) audience’s presence, but also seems to acknowledge its own vulnerability, as if slightly embarrassed about revealing too much, hence the startled expression of the monkey transfixed in the spotlight’s glare, having realised, too late, that he has, indeed, made a ‘spectacle’ of himself.27 Grinderman is playing with the idea that, if you strip everything superfluous away, this is what you end up with: a bunch of middle-aged men amusing themselves – singing about themselves to themselves; a cloistered arena in which men brag and boast whilst nursing bruised egos and venting their frustration about the opposite sex. Interestingly, it appears that such a description is not necessarily too far removed from the truth: in the music press and on the album, the band present themselves as a close, tight-knit group – ‘a four man team that’s not a pretend democracy, a la Bowie’s Tin Machine’ – and the persona Cave adopts for much of the album often appears as a more or less literal adaptation of the Wordsworthian poet as a ‘man talking to men’ – in this case his fellow bandmates.28 Similarly, when discussing the absence of Cave’s usual romantic lyrical language, Sclavunos suggested: ‘I think that development was furthered by the fact that he was performing them as he was writing them to the gentlemen in the band. A bunch of guys’.29 Perhaps as a result of this (and I am not suggesting this is a logical conclusion), many of the album’s lyrics could be considered explicitly, even violently misogynistic: from the righteous posturing of ‘Go Tell the Women’ and ‘No Pussy Blues’, to the crude antipathy of ‘(I Don’t Need You) To Set Me Free’ and ‘Love Bomb’, women are vilified, objectified, insulted and mocked. With the possible exception of the glorified prostitute of ‘Depth Charge Ethel’ and the love-interest of ‘Honey Bee’ – who briefly enter centre-stage as apparitions of male fantasy and braggadocio – most of the album is openly hostile towards women: they are rarely attributed with agency or presence, but rather lurk as potentially dangerous shadows in the background. Nonetheless, I would argue that such a reading of Grinderman’s lyrics as misogynistic or sexist would not only be premature, but would miss the point entirely – particularly if one turns away from a textual analysis of the lyrics and rather listens to the album as a performance. As suggested above, I believe that Grinderman is playing with the idea of ‘stripping down’; if a female character was to be given a legitimate ‘voice’ on the album, it would not only be detrimental to the overall effect, but more importantly would be untruthful to the dramatic scenario being established. As Cave suggests:

27 This idea of the monkey making a ‘spectacle’ of himself is informed by a question Frith poses in his chapter on popular performance; ‘what does it mean to make a spectacle of oneself?’ See Frith, Performing Rites, p. 212. 28 Amorosi, ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’. 29 Ibid.

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


[The woman] has been given the freedom to leave the building. The man character remains here with all his neurosis and inadequacies and impotent-cies … That’s the thematic development, so to speak … To look at a 50 year old man and his problems and his needs, I needed to get rid of the woman so to best dismantle the man and have a look at him.30

This idea of ‘dismantling’ the ‘50 year old man’ in order to properly engage with ‘his problems and needs’ is played out to particularly hilarious dramatic effect on ‘No Pussy Blues’, which, as the title suggests, is a song which lists, in detail, the numerous failed attempts of the protagonist – a middle-aged male rock star – to get laid. The stories he relates are funny enough; however, it is Cave’s performance which really makes the song poignant. You can almost see him growing more and more frustrated, his voice and vocal gestures becoming increasingly shrill and agitated as the song progresses, each time arriving at the inevitable punch-line: ‘she didn’t want to’. At a couple of critical junctures the music around him explodes in a maelstrom of distortion and drums, with Cave whooping and hollering over the top (‘Damn It!’) – a common enough trope in rock ’n’ roll, but when contrasted with the impotency described in the lyrics, it makes for a particularly humorous effect.31 The song becomes especially funny when understood in relation to the original ‘Grinder Man Blues’ on which both band and album are based. Like the term ‘rock ’n’ roll’ itself, ‘Grinder Man’ originally derives from an African-American euphemism for sex; in this case referring to a particularly vigorous sexual position for which the Grinder Man is renowned, and the song consists largely of boasts to that effect. Indeed, like the mythologies surrounding Robert Johnson and Stackalee, the folkloric character of the Grinder Man signifies much of what traditional rock and rock ’n’ roll ideology is all about: a distinctly masculine image of individuality, virility and pride; the rebel or outlaw pitted against the law; the individual versus the conventions of polite, homogenised (white) society.32 The song mixes metaphors of sex and work to startling effect: the Grinder Man’s ladyfriends are referred to only as ‘customers’, and their sexual transactions are treated


Ibid. Grinderman, ‘No Pussy Blues’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 32 Marcus has argued that many of the prevailing images of African-American masculinity invoked in the blues – and often appropriated within white male rock ’n’ roll – are re-workings of the ‘Stackerlee’ myth: ‘In the blues, Stack changed names, but little else. He was the Crawling Kingsnake … Muddy Waters’ cool and elemental Rollin’ Stone; Chuck Berry’s Brown-Eyed Handsome Man … Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Mover; Mick Jagger’s Midnight Rambler’ and ‘Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man”’. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n Roll Music (New York, 1997), p. 67. 31

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


as transactions, with business-like efficiency and detachment. As the Grinder Man sings: ‘I’m a very busy fella / You know they call me the Grinder Man’.33 In contrast, the persona Cave enacts in ‘No Pussy Blues’ is condemned to failure and humiliation, as he resorts to ever more desperate measures in the attempt to woo the object of his lust, to no avail. The elusive woman character remains eternally beyond his grasp; far from reflecting back at him an image of his own male virility and pride, she serves only as an embodiment of all his ‘inadequacies and impotent-cies’. This sense of the singer’s isolation and alienation is further reinforced by Cave’s delivery of the introductory preamble (his second opening address of the album), which commences with the sound of a manual typewriter, over which Cave begins: My face is finished; my body’s gone And I can’t help but think, standing up here in all this applause, Gazing down on all the young and the beautiful, With their questioning eyes That I must above all things love myself. That I must above all things love myself. That I must above all things love myself.34

Cave delivers the speech as though addressing himself in the mirror, as if voicing his innermost doubts and desires before repeating the final line as a mantra: ‘I must above all things love myself’ (a line which takes on a more literal meaning in light of the singer’s apparent inability to achieve amorous contact). The speech appears as a moment of private self-reflection ‘snatched from an evening of public display’; introduced by the tap-tapping of the type-writer, it frames the song as a kind of inner-monologue or journal entry, as if providing a running commentary on what is going through the singer’s mind as he stands ‘up here in all this applause’.35 As with the woman character throughout the song, however, all the singer sees as he ‘gazes down on all the young and the beautiful’ is an image of his own failures and inadequacies reflected back at him. One imagines the singer recoiling as he looks out over a sea of up-turned faces: filtered through the suffocating prism of his own self-absorption, all he sees in the supposed innocence of the audience’s ‘questioning eyes’ is accusation and hostility.36


Lyrics available at mphis+slim_10170285.html, accessed 30 Dec 2008. 34 Grinderman, ‘No Pussy Blues’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 35 Frith, Performing Rites, p. 209. 36 An earlier draft of ‘No Pussy Blues’ shown in Nick Cave Stories finds the singer proclaiming that the ‘questioning eyes’ of the audience is ‘enough to move you to murder’. Barrand and Fox, Nick Cave Stories, p. 125.

Grinderman: All Stripped Down


In a sense, then, this is Grinderman’s seemingly self-enclosed universe taken to its logical conclusion, less an occasion for feminist outrage than for pity, at best. As with the way the band present themselves in publicity – as a close, tight-knit group – it would be possible to read some biographical significance into Cave’s persona here, an interpretation which Cave arguably invites when he says: My existence is all I’ve got to write about. Age always has to do with it whether you’re 30 or 50. Enormous implications at how you see the world. Seeing the world at 30 is different than how you see it at 50 no matter how much spandex you put on him. Even if you can still leap around the stage elegantly at 60, you still have different preoccupations. The older a person gets the more different things are in his mind – sex and death. In that order.37

While there may be some truth to Cave’s performance here, such an interpretation is complicated by the fact that, within this opening preamble, there are at least two performances taking place, and thus two audience-performer relationships being established. As Frith writes: ‘Just as a singer is both performing the song and performing the performance of the song, so we, as an audience, are listening both to the song and its performance’.38 That is, on the one hand, there is the performance taking place within the context of the song, the singer taking a moment of private self-reflection as he stands on-stage before an audience who, presumably, remain largely ignorant of his ‘real’ thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, there is the performance which takes place on-record, to which I am privy; and in this latter performance it is almost impossible to escape the knowledge that Cave not only knows exactly what he is saying and who he is saying it to, but that he knows that I know that he knows! And within this convoluted system of ‘knowingness’ lies the true promise which Grinderman’s ‘stripped down’ approach offers to reveal: a promise which is itself a gesture, a pose, a tease, but which is no less seductive for being so. Grinderman appears to strip away the trappings of fame and stardom, to take the audience behind the scenes, and to expose a glimpse of the ‘real me’ behind the rock star. And yet, all that is revealed, in the end, is a performance: it is the gesture itself – the gesture of ‘stripping down’ – which is held up for the audience’s listening pleasure.


Amorosi, ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’. Frith, Performing Rites, p. 211.



Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Amorosi, A.D., ‘Nick Cave’s Grinderman: The Daily Grind’, Harp [Online], available at id+5336, accessed 3 Dec 2007. Anon., ‘About the Artist: Grinderman Song by Song’ [Online], available at http:// B000M, accessed 3 Dec 2007. Anon., ‘The 50 Best Albums: Grinderman’, Uncut Best of 2007 issued with Uncut (Jan 2008). Barrand, Janine and Jamie Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Connor, Steven, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Frith, Simon, ‘Art Versus Technology: The Strange Case of Pop’, Media, Culture and Society 8:3 (1985): 263–79. ——, Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Grinderman, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Kord, Ted, ‘Editorial Reviews from’ [Online], available at http:// -Cave/dp/product-description/ B000M, accessed 3 Dec 2007. Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n Roll Music (New York: Plume, 1997). ——, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York: Picador, 1997). Masters, Mark, ‘Pitchfork Feature: Interview: Grinderman’, available at http://, accessed 3 Dec 2007. McDonnell, Evelyn, ‘Re-Creation’, in Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell (eds), Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth (London: Routledge, 1999). Robinson, Jim, ‘I’m 50. My Mind’s a Swamp’, Uncut (Feb 2008): 53–6. Rowland, Mark, ‘Tom Waits is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)’, in Mac Montandon (ed.), Innocent When You Dream. Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005). Shedden, Iain, ‘Old Nick’s Still Raising Hell’, The Weekend Australian Review (23–4 Feb 2008): 4–5. Weinstein, Deena, ‘All Singers Are Dicks’, Popular Music and Society 27:3 (2004): 323–34.

PART III The Sacred

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Chapter 9

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author: Cave’s Religion Robert Eaglestone

Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008), Nick Cave’s most recent album with the Bad Seeds includes a song called ‘We Call Upon the Author’. I want to suggest that this song is significant because it both represents one step in Cave’s life-long Christian religious aesthetic and, as with other recent works, marks a significant change in Cave’s evolving attitude to religion. That is, coming to understand this one song illuminates a whole world and a whole artistic career. In order to understand the song, then, I will briefly discuss two larger and more complex histories, sketching (in, as it were, the blink of an eye) the relationship of religion and modernity, and highlighting moments in Cave’s relation to religion. An issue that is sometimes elided in this field is the distinction between the person and the performer: like most creative people, and like all people in popular music, Nick Cave is an act of prosopopeia, that is, of ‘face making’, by Nick Cave. The figure who writes, sings, acts – who is written, is sung, is acted, in fact – bears only a resemblance to the ‘real’ Nick Cave. About the religious commitments of the ‘real’ person I know nothing and these are not matters of interest for this chapter: about the religious commitments of the other ‘Nick Cave’, however, who lives in the public and aesthetic realm, much can be said, and every single time I use this name, even at the most personal moments, it is this Nick Cave who I name (if it seems otherwise, it is an unavoidable effect of rhetoric). While much of this chapter concerns the relationship of the rhetorical to what may lie beyond it, the relationship between the two Caves – the ‘real’ and the rhetorically created, both living in complex different ways – is one problem among many, and not a solution to problems, as, for example, the genre of biography, style magazines and newspapers so often assume.

 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘We Call Upon the Author’, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, CD (Mute Records, 2008). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Suffused with Religion Nick Cave’s music and writing – his ‘thinking-through-art’, as it were, in the model of one of the poets he cites, Wallace Stevens – has been deeply concerned with religion. It is informed by a religious sensibility and a religious rhetoric: by the former, in this case I mean something like a ‘way of life’ or a series of approaches to existential issues that, while not necessarily coherent, strive towards a sense of coherency. By the latter, I mean a vocabulary and discourse that turns over and over again to religion for its models, metaphors, ways of seeing and so on. These two categories are far from stable and are, of course, interwoven, and are only meant, really, to draw out, below, some issues of emphasis. What makes Cave’s work so interesting to analyse in this respect, and perhaps so important, is that his work constantly refuses to separate out religion from the other themes and concerns with which he deals. In this, he shares a great deal with the singer/songwriter Jason Pierce AKA Jason Spaceman (‘Spaceman’ names his own prosopopeia) from Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, but with very few other contemporary figures. This is significant because it marks a sophisticated and more thorough-going engagement with the phenomena of religion. It is common, for example, for artists to have religious songs (the whole tradition of Gospel music and its offshoots, or Bob Dylan’s post-conversion albums) or to make critiques of versions of religion. It is also common, of course, to have songs that invoke Jesus in different forms. What is less common is to find work that is expressly and throughout suffused with religious ideas, or that uses religious ideas to examine existential issues of love and death, among many others. The reasons for this are complex, but stem, perhaps, and to speak quickly of difficult topics, from the fundamental separation of spheres or discourses after the Enlightenment. The separation that, for example, Immanuel Kant makes, and that is taken up in Western European versions of Christianity (especially in Protestantism), splits the religious sphere from the civil or political sphere. That is, one understanding of secularism is to say that one’s religious commitments should have no place in deciding or thinking through one’s civil commitments. The notional separation of Church from State in the United States of America is one example of this, marking the liberation of the civil community from ‘priestly superstition’. However, this idea, widespread throughout Western European culture – that religion is only one part of one’s wider humanity and can be bracketed off – is complicated for two reasons. Even in the most secular societies, the rhetoric of religion in the Western tradition offers the perhaps strongest resource for thinking through, or engaging with, what it is to be. That is, religion – without prejudice to matters of belief or disbelief­ – offers a very powerful cultural system through which we are revealed 

‘The Waves, the waves were soldiers moving’ from ‘We Call Upon the Author’ is from Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Dry Loaf’, and, although this would be another article, there is a clear influence of Stevens on Cave’s later work. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘We Call Upon the Author’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


to ourselves. It is more widespread and easily accessed than art, or, for example, psychoanalysis. It deals with the issues of fear and angst, our anticipation of death, moral action and inaction, choice, love and hate, the establishment and decay of community – indeed all the complicated tapestry of our being in the world. In offering a cultural resource to engage with these things, religion itself is a powerful system of metaphors, a language with which, as Jacques Derrida remarks in ‘Faith and Knowledge’, it is almost impossible not to engage: ‘[D]ifficult to say Europe without connoting: Athens-Jerusalem-Rome-Byzantium, wars of Religion, open war over the appropriation of Jerusalem and of Mount Moriah’. That said, acts of explicit religious engagement in contemporary art are rare, and are usually tinged with irony or self-hate: complex aesthetic descriptions of people’s religious hopes (in the model, say, of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress [1678]) are rarely on television, for example. This sense of religion as a latent tradition is also true at a less existential, more explicit level too: religion is the source of a great number of very good stories that are, simply, good stories begging to be told and retold, making up an invaluable resource for any artist interested in narrative. Linked with this, the second problem with the idea of ‘bracketing off’ religion is that religious discourse itself, especially in the Abrahamic traditions, is deeply unhappy with this division of spheres. While religious discourses have made themselves think through issues of democracy and civil society – indeed, this has been the obsessive subject of much Christian, Jewish and Muslim thought for at least two hundred years – there is still a sense that this division of spheres is fundamentally problematic and irreligious. We see this in a range of ways. One strand of Islamist thought claiming the name of Islam – the ideology of Al Qaeda and of the Taliban, for example – is based on the work of Sayyid Qutb, who argues that, as a human state is man-made and therefore fallible, the ideal is a divine state based solely on (one interpretation) of the Koran: to this end, they envisage the total annihilation of the secular civil sphere. Qutb’s task is to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of the man-made traditions of several generations and which is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings.

Less extreme, perhaps, but in the same vein are the attempts by the Catholic Church to shift public policy through influencing politicians and the public, sometimes with inflated claims, in secular (or, in the case of the United Kingdom, actually secular if nominally religious) governments. These two are political examples, and rarely grist for Cave’s mill (though ‘God Is in the House’ from No More Shall We Part might be seen as an overtly political song critiquing religious politicians and  Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’ in Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (eds), Religion (Oxford, 1998), p. 4.  Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Delhi, 1981), pp. 11–12.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

communities). More complex and harder cases lie within the personal sphere. If one is religious, should it not be part of every aspect of one’s existence? Or, to put it another way, are we not a little shocked by the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed Christian behaving in an unchristian way? Shocked, that is, not by the inevitable failure of a human being to live up to high ideals – the ‘falling into sin’ – but by a self-conscious decision to behave in a certain sort of way, as it were, during the days of the week, and another way on Sunday. Or, again, you may know someone very well, but still not know about one aspect of their life (their interest in fossils, say), but it would seem odd (outside a purely professional relationship) not to be aware of their religious commitments. Listening to Cave’s work, then – and Jason Spaceman’s, too – is to encounter a work suffused with religion in contradistinction to both of these complications. It takes religion as a system of engagement with existential issues and as a source for powerful narratives. It also takes religion at its word not simply as one discourse among others but, as for a religious person, as a primary discourse that structures and shapes others. This is the central ‘confusion’ at the heart of Cave’s work. ‘Confusion’ here is not meant in a negative sense: its etymology, from the Latin confundere, means to pour together, to mingle. It is the opposite, perhaps, of one major academic impulse, which is to separate, define and delimit. It is precisely the destruction of the carefully established spheres separating these putative parts of existence underlying Cave’s art. Evidence for this claim, for this ‘confusion’, can be found in Cave’s two lectures, both of which date to what I will suggest later is a key intellectualaesthetic moment in his career. In ‘The Flesh Made Word’ he argues that when Jesus says ‘[w]henever two or more are gathered together, I am in your midst’ (Matthew 18.20), he says this because ‘whenever two or more are gathered there is communion, there is language, there is imagination. There is God. God is a product of the creative imagination and God is that imagination taken to flight’. Here communion and language are versions of confusion in this sense, and the sense that Cave offers of imagination throughout this lecture is about the divine and the transcendent. This sense of ‘bringing together’ is even clearer in ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’: indeed, this essay is precisely about the inextricability of the divine from the creative and from the love song. Cave writes: [T]hough the Love Song comes in many guises – songs of exaltation and praise, songs of rage and despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss – they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true Love Song inhabits.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘God Is in the House’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  Nick Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, King Ink II (London, 1997), p. 137.  Nick Cave, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, The Complete Lyrics 1979–2001 (London, 2001), p. 7.

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


That is, the Love Song brings together all these different forms and desires in order to ‘to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine’. Here, the love song not only mixes eros and agape (physical desire and love for the divine), which is quite a common trope, but anger, fear, loss, both transcendence and finitude: the whole gamut of what it is to be, in fact. So, when Cave says that ‘actualizing of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist’, this turns out to be not a humble claim, but (rightly) rather a large and ambitious one. Saying this is not to argue the obvious, that ‘there are religious motifs’ in Cave’s oeuvre. Rather, it is to say that what is Nick Cave could not be Nick Cave without this suffusion in religion, without this denial of the separation of spheres characteristic of modernity and thus his life-long religious aesthetic. This in turn, however, does not imply that these complex interrelationships have been the same throughout Cave’s career. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about Cave’s career has been the constant development of exactly this crucial strand of his ‘thought through art’. Religious ‘Rhetorics’ and Religious ‘Sensibilities’ At the core of his astonishing ‘essay’ (rather, a ‘schematic and telegraphic preface’) on faith and knowledge, Derrida covers a huge array of interwoven topics: one centrally touches on the relation between reason and religion.10 Derrida argues that both reason and religion develop from a ‘common resource: the testimonial pledge of every performative’.11 Of course, what he is examining underlies the great structures of Western metaphysics, but, here, it does draw attention to the relation of the performative in relation to religion. Derrida goes further. He argues that in speaking about religion ‘we are already speaking Latin’ but more than this, our rhetoric (in the sense that Paul de Man’s work suggests) about God, the promissory structures in which we are always already enmeshed, with which we are already involved, come before our relation to religion.12 What this means is that the rhetorics we use to talk about God and religion are not separate from ‘what we really mean’ but instead shape our beliefs. This complication is especially relevant to Cave’s work. Nevertheless, Cave would, certainly in the 1990s, find this idea problematic. He argues in ‘The Flesh Made Word’ that:

Ibid., p. 11. Ibid., p. 6. 10 Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge’, p. 3. 11 Ibid., p. 28. 12 Ibid., p. 27. For Paul de Man see his Allegories of Reading (New Haven, CT, 1979), and The Resistance to Theory (Manchester, 1986). 

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


[w]hat Jesus most despises, what He really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolised by the scribes and Pharisees – those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who actively dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people and kept them bogged down with theological nit-picking, intellectualism and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian Church ever since, was the Pharisees preoccupation with the law, in preference to the logos. Said St Paul to the Corinthians, ‘The Letter killeth, but the Sprit givith life’. So how can one be elevated spiritually if they are loaded up with chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration or for that matter God be moral?13

Of course, this is a version of one of the more complex but still core strands of Christian anti-Semitism: that the Jewish people are blind to the movement of spirit and are wedded to the letter of the Law. That is not the key issue here, however. The issue is that Cave (despite not believing ‘in an interventionist God’) assumes in this essay that the experience of religion, of God (or the imagination, one and the same for Cave) is unmediated: that ‘spirit’ can be somehow directly encountered, that the ‘rhetoric’ (‘theological nit-picking’) opposes the real essence (‘spiritual flight’). In contrast to Derrida’s careful placing of religion into a promissory relationship, that is, into a rhetoric, Cave offers an unmediated experience of religion. Now, this may or may not be possible: some mystics have asserted that it is. But even the experiences of mystics are, in their coming to understanding, mediated by language, by their histories.14 That is, the mystical experience seems to be traumatic, outside language and rhetoric: but, when it needs to be understood, to be related, to be more than just an experience of God’s ‘outsideness’, to turn from being ‘unclaimed’ to ‘claimed’ experience, to use Cathy Caruth’s phrase, it is inextricable from its rhetoric.15 This is also true of Cave’s parallel, art: we may all feel inspired to create, but it is the rhetoric of creation, the 99 per cent perspiration that creates the art, not the swelling feeling inside one. (That Cave seems to think religion is unmediated here, when he can observe that in relation to writing songs it is as if they had their ‘own inbuilt destiny’ which makes one ‘a bit-part player in its sly, mischievous and finally malicious version of how the world should be’ – the meta-ferocity of songs, one might say – is odd and only shows in what deep waters we find ourselves).16


Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, p. 140. See, for example, Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995). 15 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, MD, 1996). 16 Cave, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, pp. 17–18. 14

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


Derrida’s argument does not suggest religious ceremonies are just rhetorical or performances. It means that religion itself is performed, that is, constructed by and in a particular sense of performance and rhetoric. In terms of the everyday subject, this might include everyday activities, thoughts and behaviours. In terms of the prosopopeia of a pop star and his or her oeuvre, it concerns music, lyric, styles of movement, dress and so on. I want to suggest that it is a changing and developing religious sensibility and rhetoric – and as I suggested earlier, these are not always the same – that underlies the changes in Cave’s relation to religion. In what follows, I want to trace briefly this change and development. Several commentators have picked up on the remark that it is possible to divide Cave’s career in relation to religion into two phases. Mick Harvey, his longest collaborator (and singer/songwriter in his own right) remarked that ‘in the ’80s you could say he was obsessed with the Old Testament. In the ’90s, he’s obsessed with the New Testament’: this conviction turns up in numerous newspaper articles from the mid-1990s.17 More than this, it is echoed in Nick Cave’s own selfunderstanding in ‘The Flesh Made Word’: I … found in the tough prose of the Old Testament a perfect language, at once mysterious and familiar, that not only reflected the state of mind that I was in at the time but actively informed my artistic endeavours. I found there the voice of God and it was brutal and jealous and merciless … So it was the feeling I got from the Old Testament, of a pitiful humanity suffering under a despotic God, than began to leak into my lyric writing … a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.18

But, as I have suggested above, there are two linked strands here: the first is that of a rhetoric (the ‘tough prose’, a ‘language of puke and bile’) and the other is more of a sensibility of an experience of God (a ‘brutal’ God, ‘pitiful humanity’). One marks, perhaps, how we speak about God, the other marks an idea of a God untouched by language, a God directly experienced. I want to suggest that, as well as a division between Old and New Testaments, there is a more complex and harder to unweave change connected to the idea of performance and rhetoric in Cave’s work. That is, there is a more difficult change in his work which relies not so much on what he has been reading (Old or New) but in the relationship between the rhetoric by which we discuss God and the (dream of) an unmediated relationship with him. Much of Cave’s involvement in this Old Testament discourse is clear in his first album Prayers on Fire (1981) and the EP Mutiny! (1983), of which ‘Mutiny in

17 Cited in, among others, Michael J. Gilmour (ed.), Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music (London, 2005), p. 247. 18 Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, pp. 138–9.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Heaven’ is the standout track.19 This last song does indeed, sum up much of what Cave says: it is a rejection of the God of puke and bile couched in those same terms (‘If this is Heaven ah’m bailing out’ and ‘Rats in Paradise! Rats in Paradise’). But it is also about heroin (‘Ah take my tiny pain and rollin back mah sleeve … Ah yank the drip outa mah vein’): it is unclear to what the text is referring. The same is true of the first two Bad Seeds albums, From Her to Eternity (1984) and The FirstBorn is Dead (1985). In ‘Tupelo’ the coming of Elvis is retold as an apocalyptic messianic event. The thunder rumbles ‘hungry like the Beast’, ‘no bird can fly no fish can swim’ until the ‘King is born in Tupelo’.20 Here, precisely, even the New Testament sentiment of ‘you will reap what you sow’ is mixed with a sense, and by a rhetoric, of Old Testament vengeance and accursedness. Though how the King will resolve these terrible matters is unclear in the song: Elvis certainly is not a saving messiah, but rather, perhaps, some terrible apocalyptic beast linked with suffering and sacrifice. This uncertainty is in one way, of course, not a problem. Pop songs need not offer coherent theologies (or, indeed, coherent anything). However, this does point up a distinction between the rhetoric, the performance of the song, suffused with tension and the language of endings, with biblical reference, and its sensibility: the rhetoric doesn’t, as it were, go anywhere: it just sounds good. This is performing a relation to religion: using its tropes and codes, its intellectual and aesthetic rhythms, its rhetoric, but without using or, perhaps, inhabiting it. Accounting for himself in ‘The Word Made Flesh’, Cave describes how, feeling ‘sick and sad’, he turned from the Old to ‘wonderful prose poems’ of the New Testament, which gave him a voice that was ‘softer, sadder, more introspective’.21 Indeed, the very opening of the next album, Your Funeral… My Trial (1986) begins with ‘Down the road I look and there runs Mary’ (this Mary, her gold hair, her cherry lips, is an extra from Claude Putman Junior’s ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’), and the narrator says that ‘O Mary you have seduced my soul / Forever a hostage of your child’s world’.22 Here, the ‘child’s world’ is suddenly unclear: it is Mary’s childish world, of course, but with more than a hint of Jesus’ – Mary’s child’s – world: later she is involved in ‘turning these waters into wine’, a metaphor, certainly, but one that carries weight. But again, the sensibility here is complex: the rhetoric perfectly and delicately confuses the religious and the erotic, but to no narrative end. Mary, in a beautiful image, spooks the carp with her shadow, and the same shadow is cast across the heart of the narrator, but with no sense of why. Again, as above, there is no reason why a pop song should offer a The Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire, LP (4AD, 1981); The Birthday Party, ‘Mutiny in Heaven’, Mutiny! EP (Mute Records, 1983). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 20 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Tupelo’, The First-Born is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 21 Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, p. 139. 22 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Sad Waters’, Your Funeral… My Trial, CD (Mute Records, 1986). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 19

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


why or a coherent narrative – it doesn’t have to offer a thesis – but this does offer a division between the rhetoric and the sensibility. Developing this combination of New and Old Testament rhetorics and sensibilities lies at the core of the next four, nearly flawless, albums, which stand as quite an astonishing achievement in contemporary music. ‘The Mercy Seat’ on Tender Prey (1988) is one of Cave’s greatest songs (covered by, among others, Johnny Cash) and is exactly at the nexus of this Old and New Testament rhetoric. The repetition of the ‘eye for an eye’23 the lex talionis – the very concept of the ‘mercy seat’ (the electric chair, God’s throne), the tattooed Mitchum-esque hand of the convict, all echo modes of discourse around the Old Testament.24 Here, in this mode of discourse, the convict is concerned with the justice of the law acting upon him. His assertion that there was no proof, that he did not lie, suggests that he thinks the lex talionis is acting unfairly upon him: his judicial killing is the unfair action of the law. But at the same time, through the song, there is a counter, as it might be, New Testament discourse about admission and forgiveness, and so trust in Christ, who ‘died upon the cross’, a ‘ragged stranger’. And in this discourse, the convict’s brave ‘I’m not afraid to tell a lie’ changes as his ‘head is burning’ (both literally and metaphorically) and he yearns to be done with the (Old Testament) ‘measuring of truth’: at the last he admits ‘I’m afraid I told a lie’. And this would be, one imagines, the beginning of the process of (messianic) forgiveness beyond the law (that is: forgiveness beyond an economics of law and retribution) and so redemption. Here, while the rhetoric and narrative do run together, the song stops before a resolution of the problem of the relationship between law and forgiveness, so perfectly pitched here, can be reached. This is not to suggest some facile biographical moment, but to argue that the song uses the rhetoric of both but offers a resolution in relation to neither. Similarly, the half-lullaby, ‘Foi Na Cruz’, at the start of The Good Son (1990) explicitly invokes Jesus’ death, and then is undermined by ‘a little trickery and deceit’ and the fact that their plans will remain ‘dreams for ever more’.25 Here, again, suffused in religious rhetoric, resolution is not reached. This album and the next, Henry’s Dream (1992), are full of very Biblical and religious images: bell towers, weeping sons and fathers, Cane and Abel, witnessing, gardens, faith healers, astonishing saints, fathers and sons, begging brothers and so on: that is to say, the rhetoric is drawn from this world. But again, there is a tension between the two modes of discourse, Old and New. A very clear example is ‘When I First Came to Town’ in which the spurned narrator appeals both to Jesus (and so to a sensibility of forgiveness and redemption) and to an Old Testament sense of vengeance: ‘those that sin against me are snuffed out …


Exodus 21.24. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Mercy Seat’, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 25 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Foi Na Cruz’, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 24


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

And the people of this town will surely see / Just how quickly the tables turn’.26 In another register, though still involved with love and retribution, and echoed beautifully by the music, the act of the murder of mad John Finn is redeemed by the love of his wife for the murderer, and for the sympathy engendered for the victim’s body on the ground.27 Each album following this series keeps these issues at the core of Cave’s aesthetic, from the Let Love In (1994) to the pastiche of Murder Ballads (1996) (with its half-mocking, half-praising, ‘live aid’ style Dylan cover of ‘Death is Not the End’ from Down in the Groove [1988]). However, Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (1997) marks a change. This album is contemporaneous with the two lectures already cited, and in it Cave is most explicit both about his religious commitments and about the inextricability of God from the Love Song. Its celebrated first line (‘I don’t believe in a interventionist God’) stakes a certain claim: it is not God Cave doesn’t believe in, but a certain sort of God.28 But, rather like conversion narratives, the whole album teeters between eros and agape, often simply mixing the two. Here the rhetoric, absolutely stripped down, like the instrumentation, and the melancholic, sophisticated sensibility match perfectly. The narrative of ‘(Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For?’ is a core example.29 Directed at the female beloved (‘I felt you coming girl’) it becomes disillusioned with love (‘The stars will explode in the sky / O but they don’t, do they?’) and then turns to Jesus: ‘There’s a man who spoke wonders though I’ve never met him / He said “He who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in”’. The anticipation – ‘all down my vein my heart strings call’ – then becomes aimed at this divine figure rather than the female beloved.30 But this is resolved later in ‘There is a Kingdom’ with a declaration of belief: There is a kingdom There is a King And He lives without And He lives within And He is everything.31 26 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘When I First Came to Town’, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 27 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘John Finn’s Wife’, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 28 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Into My Arms’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 29 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘(Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For?’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 30 Ibid. 31 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There Is a Kingdom’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


The reference to Kant (the ‘starry heavens’ and the ‘moral law within’) are to the inexpressible mysteries we find in the world: Cave is clearly aligning his vision of God (without, within) with this, a mystery. A complex change has occurred here from the ranting rhetorical religion of the earlier Cave, with its confused sense of its orientation in the world, to a unified and powerful aesthetic. Most recently, ‘We Call Upon the Author’ marks another point in this change. Like the title track, the album Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! as a whole is concerned with the questions of ‘what do we really know of the dead / And who actually cares?’ and is suffused with the idea that while ‘I don’t know what it is but there’s definitely something going on upstairs’.32 Already, to ask this question (of the dead, but with a rhetorical faith in God) is to locate the sensibility as a religious one. To this, it is possible to add that the jaunty tone of the whole record is the sound of resolved issues about religion. ‘We Call Upon the Author’ emphasises this further. The question is one asked of creative writers all the time: the issue here is that the creative writer is, or has amalgamated with, God. The ‘myxomatoid kids’ who ‘look so sad and old’, ‘rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third world debt, infectious disease / Global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions’, the Holocaust (‘complete with pictures’) all need divine explanation: this is the question of how there can be evil in the world, the question of theodicy. Likewise the religious man (‘Rosary clutched in his hand’) who dies painfully (‘with tubes up his nose’) also puts a question to God. The ‘young people’ who gather round his feet ‘ignite the power-trail straight to my father’s heart’ (the memory of the death of his father is central to the first Grinderman album) also asks about pain and mourning. These are not questions about ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, but about how the world is ordered. But the assumption that there is an author already locates these questions as being asked from within a certain sensibility. The chorus makes this a little more complex: ‘Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!’ refers first to editing but might also seem to mean that a pair of scissors could cut out a question, cut the asking of the question or (given earlier Cave lyrics) kill the asker. But even to have got to the stage of asking these questions is to ask them from within a discourse. More, though, they still illustrate the confusion of creativity and religion (God as divine author, from whom explanations can be demanded). This is some way, perhaps, from a love song and instead a song about questions asked from a position of certainty.33 Even more than this, the song ‘Go Tell the Women’ from Cave’s Grinderman (2007) record, clearly illustrates a religious position. The ‘evolved’ and elevated narrators are ‘free’ but ‘lost’: ‘tired … hardly breathing … sick and tired / Of all

32 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!’, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, CD (Mute Records, 2008). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 33 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘We Call Upon the Author’, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, CD (Mute Records, 2008). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

this self serving grieving’.34 While they may do ‘genetics’ they have ‘nothing to believe in’ except – like characters in Brave New World – consensual rape, at best to maintain the species. Surely, here, the target is the anti-religion lobby (and ‘geneticists’ hints at the ubiquitous and voluble geneticist, science populariser and aggressively public atheist Richard Dawkins). This too is a religious song, if of a more aggressive sort. Conclusion I have argued in this chapter that Cave’s oeuvre is dominated by an unusual aesthetic, one that takes religious matters as its core. It rejects the division, typical of modernity, of public from the private and religious spheres, and instead maintains an orientation to the world suffused with religion. However, in contrast to Cave’s own discussion of the relation between logos and law, between logos and its ‘incarnation’ in and as language, his work shows a complex relationship between what I named, roughly, a religious ‘sensibility’ and a religious ‘rhetoric’. These shift and change and develop during the course of his career, and this internal dialogism offers him interesting and moving aesthetic choices. Indeed, it is the shifting complexity of Cave’s relation to religion, and his dedication to continually exploring this, that in no small way make him the significant artist that he has become.

34 Grinderman, ‘Go Tell the Women’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

From Mutiny to Calling upon the Author


Bibliography The Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire, LP (4AD, 1981). ——, Bad Seed/Mutiny! CD (Mute Records, 1983). Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Cave, Nick, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, King Ink II (London: Black Spring, 1997). ——, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, The Complete Lyrics 1979–2001 (London: Penguin, 2001). Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds, The First-Born is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). ——, Your Funeral… My Trial, CD (Mute Records, 1986). ——, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). ——, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). ——, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). ——, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). ——, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). ——, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, CD (Mute Records, 2008). Derrida, Jacques, ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’, in Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (eds), Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). Gilmour, Michael J. (ed.), Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music (London: Continuum, 2005). Grinderman, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Jantzen, Grace, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). De Man, Paul, Allegories of Reading (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979). ——, The Resistance to Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986). Qutb, Sayyid, Milestones (Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 1981).

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Chapter 10

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth Nathan Wiseman-Trowse

I am sitting at my computer watching a video clip of Elvis Presley performing ‘Suspicious Minds’ at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in August 1970. The clip comes from the film Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, Presley’s first non-dramatic film in his career. It chronicles the ‘Elvis Summer Festival’ concerts at the International over three nights along with footage of rehearsals and jams and shots from his first tour in 13 years. I first came to this particular clip when it was screened by the BBC on Top of the Pops 2, and I was immediately riveted by the power and playfulness of Presley’s performance. Like many others, and along with accepted wisdom, my personal tastes veer towards the more rockabilly tone of Presley’s early work before he was drafted in 1958. In this clip, the imagery of Vegas-era Presley is all there but there is still a palpable sense of excitement as Presley guides the band through an extended jam on the chorus to the end. He toys with the backing singers, slipping in adlibs (‘stick it up your nose’), wheeling his arms and striking karate poses throughout a performance which is primarily about Presley’s ability to play with dynamics and swing. Whatever you think of Presley, it is a thrilling piece of film; but in many ways it presages the perceived decline of Elvis over the next seven years as the glitz of the Vegas cabaret circuit largely eclipsed the early feral threat of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and ‘Hound Dog’. From here on Presley fully became the cartoon entertainer that countless Elvis imitators have since adopted as their performative identity. Elvis: That’s The Way It Is charts the point at which Presley consolidated a regained popularity only largely to drift into nostalgia and kitsch. However, the myth of Presley has endured in many forms and serves a number of uses, particularly since his death. As Greil Marcus points out in the introduction to Dead Elvis, ‘there is another Elvis Presley, a figure made of echoes, not facts’. It is this Elvis that haunts the early work of Nick Cave, not in a historical sense, perhaps not even in terms of musical inspiration. But the myth of Elvis recurs in relation to Cave’s work on numerous occasions, and engages with some of the most powerful imagery used not only in Cave’s songs but also through his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.

Denis Sanders, dir., Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1970). Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (London, 1991), pp. xi–xii.  Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London, 1989).  

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Cave and Presley To understand the role of Elvis in relation to Nick Cave it is important to understand Presley in archetypal terms. Cave uses Presley, his work and his biography to explicate archetypes important to his own work. In Ian Johnston’s biography, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave, the issue of Presley’s influence is addressed: Cave had always admired Presley, but after reading Albert Goldman’s biography and repeatedly watching on video the concert footage of Presley’s pained performance of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and ‘My Way’, recorded in Rapid City, South Dakota, on 21 June 1977, just months before Presley’s death, he became increasingly obsessed with the singer’s final ‘Las Vegas’ years … [Cave] believed that Presley on stage, in an advanced state of disintegration, finally presented the truth about himself and with such passion that his performance was totally uncontrived.

This ‘advanced state of disintegration’ marks Presley out as a fundamentally flawed figure exhibiting those very flaws despite the high levels of artifice and staged drama all around him in a live context. Cave’s engagement with Elvis is most immediately apparent through his cover of ‘In the Ghetto’ released as the first single by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1984 (recorded as part of the From Her to Eternity sessions). Presley appears again in his most telling guise as the focus of Cave’s apocalyptic ‘Tupelo’, the opening track of Cave’s second album The Firstborn is Dead (1985). ‘Tupelo’ uses Presley’s birthplace as the setting for a Biblical flood, a divine retribution raining down upon ‘Tupelo’s shame’. ‘Tupelo’ also acts as a connection between Cave’s recorded work and his debut novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, making explicit links between not only the one song, but a number of tracks recorded by Cave over a number of years that explore the archetypal potential of the Elvis myth. The Birthday Party’s Mutiny! EP provides ‘Swampland’, while Cave’s work with the Bad Seeds gives us ‘Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree’ and ‘Black Crow King’ from The Firstborn is Dead, ‘The Good Son’ from the album of the same name, ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’ from Henry’s Dream (1992), ‘Red Right

Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London, 1996), pp. 145–6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  The Birthday Party, The Bad Seed/Mutiny!, CD (Mute Records, 1983). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


Hand’ from Let Love In (1994) and ‘Crow Jane’ from Murder Ballads (1996).10 All these songs resonate with themes that find fuller realisation in And the Ass Saw the Angel, and that connect with the ‘other Elvis’ alluded to by Marcus. To understand the role of the sign of Elvis as utilised by Cave, it is pertinent to focus on And the Ass Saw the Angel as it contains much of the imagery surrounding Presley that leaks into Cave’s recorded work both with The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds. The novel concerns a mute religious fanatic, Euchrid Eucrow, from his birth in the backwards hillbilly country of the fictional Ukulore Valley (besieged by three years of solid rain, understood as indicative of divine retribution for sin), somewhere deep in the heart of America’s Bible Belt, to his death in quicksand as he is pursued through swampland by the people of the town seeking vengeance for the attempted murder of the saintly child Beth. Cave extrapolates upon ‘Tupelo’ by transplanting Presley’s birth story into Euchrid’s clapboard shack. Euchrid mirrors Presley’s own biography as the second of twins (the firstborn is dead, his unnamed brother dies at birth). Presley’s own twin brother, Jesse Garon, similarly died at childbirth and Cave uses this profoundly symbolic event in two different ways. In ‘Tupelo’ it is Elvis, The King, that survives, a Christ figure born to deliver us from the Beast/flood: Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals And a child is born on his brother’s heels Come Sunday morn the first-born’s dead In a shoe-box tied with a ribbon of red

The child’s significance is outlined in the final verse: The lil one will walk on Tupelo Tupelo-o-o! Yeah Tupelo! And carry the burden of Tupelo Tupelo-o-o! Yeah Tupelo! Yeah! The King will walk on Tupelo Tupelo-o-o! Yeah Tupelo! He carried the burden of Tupelo11

As Marcus points out, ‘the identification of Elvis with Jesus has been a secret theme of the Elvis story since 1956 … In 1982 in Memphis, Sam Phillips told a crowd of fans and followers that the two most important events in American Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 10 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 11 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Tupelo’, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


history were the birth of Jesus and the birth of Elvis Presley’.12 Certainly Cave is quick to illustrate the power of the myth of The King, an archetypal figure who, at least through Cave’s work, adopts the mantel of Messiah and deliverer. However the articulation of the birth of The King in And the Ass Saw the Angel assumes a level of inversion that lends it a somewhat more sinister edge. Euchrid’s birth is perhaps the wrong birth. His unnamed sibling assumes a divine aspect in the infantile Euchrid’s imagination, and the reader is left wondering whether the good son has perhaps been wrongly sacrificed. Euchrid, deformed, backward, delusional and mute, is the antithesis of Presley, yet Cave uses him to explore the archetype of the Puer Aeternus, the eternal child characterised by maternal fixation and the unconscious. This chapter will return to the significance of the Puer Aeternus archetype and its relationship with Presley, Cave and wider literary manifestations. In the meantime let us look at the further connections between Presley, And the Ass Saw the Angel and Cave’s musical output. If one is to take And the Ass Saw the Angel as a nexus of ideas connected to the myth of Presley in Cave’s work, it is possible to draw allusions further than ‘Tupelo’. The Birthday Party’s ‘Swampland’ mirrors Euchrid’s flight to his death in the swamps of the Ukulore Valley, Quixanne, ah’m in its grip Quixanne, ah’m in its grip Sinken in the mud Patron-saint of the Bog They cum with boots of blud With pitchfawk and with club Chantin out mah name Got doggies strainin onna chain Lucy, ah’ll love ya till the end! They hunt me like a dog Down in Sw-a-a-a-amp Land!13

Already Cave is working through thematic ideas and motifs that would appear in his novel and, further, utilising an imagined southern dialect to place his imagery geographically and historically. By The Firstborn is Dead Cave has provided ‘Tupelo’ as well as ‘Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree’ (a song that echoes some of the canonisation of Beth’s virginity by the ‘gynaecocracy’14 of the valley, and its subsequent desecration by Euchrid), and ‘Black Crow King’, a song that mirrors Euchrid’s sense of his divine mission, Biblical deluge and the novel’s recurring corvine motif: Marcus, Dead Elvis, pp. 121–2. The Birthday Party, ‘Swampland’, The Bad Seed/Mutiny!, CD (Mute Records, 1983). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 14 Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 230. 12 13

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


I am the black crow king Keeper of the trodden corn I am the black crow king I won’t say it again And the rain it raineth daily, Lord And wash away my clothes I surrender up my arms To a company of crows15

Later in Cave’s career, after the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel, we see shadows of the novel appearing in ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’16 echoing the brief interlude of familial contentment experienced by Euchrid after his Pa kills his abusive mother. Also on Henry’s Dream, ‘Christina the Astonishing’ and ‘John Finn’s Wife’ explore the same dark iconography of the American South, although by this time Cave was living in São Paulo in Brazil, an environment that also leaves its mark on the album. ‘Red Right Hand’ from Let Love In conjures up a malevolent preacher figure similar to the novel’s Abie Poe, and even by the release of Murder Ballads in 1996 Cave is resurrecting the ghost of Euchrid’s mother in ‘Crow Jane’. Perhaps most tellingly it is ‘The Good Son’ from 1990 that returns to the Presley myth: The good son has sat and often wept Beneath a malign star by which he’s kept And the night-time in which he’s wrapped Speaks of good and speaks of evil And he calls to his mother And he calls to his father But they are deaf in the shadows of his brother’s truancy17

The whispering night recalls Euchrid’s own berating voices heard in his head, the ‘plotters’18 and the ‘mind-preachers’19 who bully and brag. However it is possible again to read ‘The Good Son’ not as an articulation of Euchrid but rather of the stillborn twin. One might be tempted to read this in light of And the Ass Saw the Angel as a song nominally about Elvis, but Cave’s lyrics give little to suggest that this is the case. Yet one is again confronted with siblings separated (truant) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Black Crow King’, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 16 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 17 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Good Son’, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 18 Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 223. 19 Ibid., p. 229. 15


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

by death and virtue. Euchrid is not the ‘good son’, he is malevolent, deformed, a voyeur, mentally unstable, fundamental. As such Cave seems to be inviting the reader/listener to explore the concurrent sides of a particular form of myth and archetype, whether that be articulated through religion (the good/bad son and kingship), literature or music. The success of Cave’s oeuvre is that where such imagery manifests itself, it works both as an instance of the creative imagination in its own right, and as a meditation upon a larger discourse that spans his work, manifesting itself at certain points in his career. The Puer Aeternus It seems clear that while Cave may have been fascinated with Presley as a physical being occupying a specific moment in history, his significance stretches somewhat further. While it is not the intention of this chapter to engage fully with Jungian analytical psychology in relation to art, literature and the creative process,20 Carl Jung’s work on archetypes as elements of psychological individuation go some way to illuminating the connections between Cave’s work and the Presley myth. At the heart of Jung’s analytical psychology is a desire to approach some form of equilibrium between the conscious and unconscious minds. This equilibrium (individuation) relies upon a coming-to-terms with the unconscious through the relationships between archetypal imagery, manifestations of the collective unconscious experienced through the subjective unconscious, and often through the creative process itself. As Jung himself suggests, It makes no difference whether the artist knows that his work is generated, grows and matures within him, or whether he imagines that it is his own invention. In reality it grows out of him as a child its mother. The creative process has a feminine quality, and the creative work arises from the unconscious depths – we might truly say from the realm of the Mothers. Whenever the creative force predominates, life is ruled and shaped by the unconscious rather than by the conscious will, and the ego is swept along on an underground current, becoming nothing more than a helpless observer of events.21

This claim has ramifications both for Cave as artist, musician, writer and Euchrid as artist, plotter, saboteur. It is difficult to say whether Cave himself understands his art as an outpouring of his unconscious: indeed given his understanding of both his song writing and literary endeavours there certainly seems to be a conscious individual marshalling the creative impulse. However this is not to say that Cave is not engaging with archetypal imagery that has deeply profound psychological 20 For further reading on Jung and the creative process see Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London, 1967). 21 Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, p. 121.

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


implications. Indeed it is possible to understand the vein of recurrent symbolism outlined above, centred around And the Ass Saw the Angel, as a meditation upon deeper cultural and psychological archetypes. Central to this approach to Cave’s work is the Puer Aeternus archetype, identified by Jung and further explicated by his student Marie-Louise von Franz in Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle With the Paradise of Childhood.22 In Aspects of the Masculine Jung suggests that ‘the Puer Aeternus is simply the personification of the infantile side of our character, repressed because it is infantile’.23 The term ‘Puer Aeternus’ is derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, applied to the child god Iacchus, understood in relation to Adonis and Attis, Tammusz and Baldur, and sometimes the Christ Child. He (or sometimes she) is characterised by youthfulness, diffidence, charm and trickery. He is both youthful arrogance and the promise of future development, a contradictory archetype eternally set in relation to the Great Mother archetype, Jung’s manifestation of the unconscious. It is the archetype of the Puer Aeternus that provides a key to Cave’s various incarnations of the good/bad son in his music and writing and also to Presley’s role in his work. Taking Euchrid as a central model, the Puer is presented in its malignant form. Physically the Puer is an adolescent, but psychologically he is an infant. In Euchrid Cave presents a character only marginally engaging with parental figures. Ma is a ‘swine – a scum-cunted, likkered-up, brain-sick swine. She was lazy and slothful and dirty and belligerent and altogether evil. Ma was a soak – a drunk – a piss-eyed hell-bag with a taste for the homebrew’.24 Euchrid’s father is little better, and only engages with Euchrid in any meaningful way in the brief period between the death of Ma and his insinuated murder at the hands of his own son. While Euchrids’s engagement with his mother is continually negative, she plays a vital role in the function of the Puer. As Jung points out, the desire to return to oblivion, to the unconscious, is at the heart of the Puer. He is introverted, narcissistic and essentially a mother’s boy. While the latter claim may not immediately ring true in the case of Euchrid, Jung’s connection between the maternal and the unconscious (a link reiterated through Freud, Lacan and Kristeva amongst others) illustrates how the role of motherhood extends beyond Ma as a literary character. Euchrid is perpetually beholden to his unconscious: his blackouts, swoons and ‘deadtime’ provide much of the impetus for the novel. For example, Euchrid wakes up holding Beth’s nightgown,25 unaware of how he got it or what he has done. Many of Euchrid’s actions take place in ‘deadtime’:

22 Marie-Louise Von Franz, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood, 1970 (Boston, MA, 1985). 23 Jung, Aspects of the Masculine, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London, 1989), p. 54. 24 Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 18. 25 Ibid., p. 263.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


The agony-rack of mah day’s passing and the slow method of its crank and shaft, the endless chatter of cogs ticking away the minutes, the bonecrack count and seconds of raw pain – the insufferable stretch of Time. Time lived. But what of all the deadtime, all the days unaccounted for? Where do they go?26

Euchrid spends much of his time in the realm of the unconscious, and it is not merely the absence of time that signifies this process. It is notable that many of Euchrid’s hallucinations and visions centre around female figures. His dreams of flying doll’s heads (linked to Beth’s dolls), his visionary angel, his fascination with the town prostitute (Beth’s mother) Cosey Mo; even the grotesque spinsters of the valley all hold a powerful sway over the book’s protagonist. But this is no mere fixation with the feminine: here the feminine represents Euchrid’s unconscious aspects. The Puer Aeternus is fixated at birth on the Great Mother archetype, manifested through a desire towards reintegration with the womb leading to rapture and sublimation. In And the Ass Saw the Angel the womb veers between being a place of comfort, ‘oh, that snuggery where we would float and float!’27 and a site of horror, ‘then all the dead belly’s unborn, unmuzzled, did sound’.28 This dual equation of the womb mirrors Euchrid’s own horror/fascination with the female body exhibited through his voyeurism, and with the unconscious itself. Euchrid himself almost understands this relationship between the oblivion of ‘deadtime’/the womb and the female/unconscious aspect of himself, ‘well, ah did lose some time to mah other sel … shit, forget it – suddenly ah took control of my consciousness again, alerted by the smashing of glass’.29 The unconscious aspect of Euchrid’s Puer conscious personality (the maternal unconscious, the ‘other sel[f]’) is a constant part of the narrative of And the Ass Saw the Angel, but it is largely hidden by Euchrid’s loss of self and therefore loss of narrative voice. The final surrender to the swamp is both a surrender to death and a surrender to the maternal (the womb like embrace of the quicksand, and also the site of Ma’s impromptu burial, reuniting mother and son). The feminine aspect of Euchrid’s unconscious mind, his anima,30 is further delineated by his own body. It is telling that many of Euchrid’s reflections upon himself bear some similarity with his observations of his own hated mother, ‘The tiny room reeked with the stench of me. Ah was filth. Ah was foulness. Ah was swinishness itself. And ah longed to be clean’.31 Despite Euchrid’s coyness over his own sexuality (we see him do up the buttons on his trousers outside Beth’s 26

Ibid., p. 226. Ibid., p. 9. 28 Ibid., p. 206. 29 Ibid., p. 114. 30 The unconscious or inner self of the masculine individual, as opposed to the persona or conscious aspect. In Jungian terms this is understood as the anima for men and the animus for women as it is described in terms of the opposite gender. 31 Cave. And the Ass Saw the Angel, p. 88. 27

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


window but there is no admission of why they were undone in the first place, his later congress with Beth is not mentioned, only inferred through the birth of her child at the end of the book), he further connects himself to the maternal through the emissions of his body. ‘Bloodings’ take the place of ejaculation, instead recalling menstruation. Black bile is emitted from his body32 and his self-mutilation, his stigmata, provides routes of access within the body, opening him up as a feminine aspect. Thus the Puer Aeternus unconsciously confronts his feminine aspect, his anima, through its representation in the archetype of The Great Mother. While there has been little work done on the relationship between the Puer archetype and Elvis Presley, it is not difficult to make connections. Returning back to Cave’s fascination with the image of a bloated and largely defunct Elvis in Las Vegas, one identifies the Puer Aeternus archetype through his introspection (a reliance on a back catalogue of material holding significantly more cultural power than his later recordings), his retreat from the real world into the security of Graceland and the hotel suite, and the often asserted close relationship between himself and his mother Gladys. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press explore this relationship as part of their assessment of the gendering of rock: The original rock’n’roll mother’s boy was, however, also the archetypal rebel: Elvis Presley. Elvis’s vinyl baptism was a rendition of ‘My Happiness’, a mawkish 1948 ballad that he covered in Sam Phillips’s cut-your-own-record booth as a birthday present to mama Gladys Presley. In a 1992 essay in The Wire, Hopey Glass provides a revisionist analysis of Presley’s ‘debut’. ‘Elvis’s mother Gladys is as demonised a power-behind-the-throne as any in rock,’ observes Glass, before arguing that this mother’s ferocious love, far from retarding Presley’s emotional development, was actually the secret source of his potency. ‘Did she smother him, leaving him ruinously in emotional hock to her ghost his whole life long…?’ It was Gladys, a smart woman who had revolted against her respectable background by marrying the sexy ne’er-do-well Vernon, who taught Elvis to be a rebel. And it was only after her death in 1958 that Presley fell under the malign sway of Colonel Tom Parker.33

Even by 1968 Stanley Booth, in an Esquire article entitled ‘A Hound Dog, to the Manor Born’, realised the dual nature of Presley, the sexual threat and the mother’s boy, articulated through an imagined dialogue between mother and son: ‘Mama, do you think I’m vulgar on the stage?’ ‘Son, you’re not vulgar, but you’re puttin’ too much into your singin’. Keep that up and you won’t live to be thirty.’


Ibid., p. 56. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll (London, 1995), pp. 216–17. 33

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


‘I can’t help it, Mama. I just have to jump around when I sing. But it ain’t vulgar. It’s just the way I feel. I don’t feel sexy when I’m singin’. If that was true, I’d be in some kinda institution as some kinda sex maniac.’34

It is this duality, the hood and rebel, and the mother’s boy that typifies Euchrid as a personification of a ‘bad’ Elvis. In his state of mental and physical collapse, at the end of his career, Presley’s duality shines through, and it is in this duality that Cave finds inspiration. While Euchrid expresses immense distaste for his own mother, he is enthralled to both physical and psychic manifestations of the feminine (his angel, Beth, Cosey Mo), the promise of the unconscious, consort with the Great Mother, God. God and the Creative Process The question of exactly what ‘God’ means in the terms set out by And the Ass Saw the Angel is a troublesome one. Upon my own initial encounter with the book upon its publication, I was only marginally familiar with the work of Nick Cave, although I understood that his work engaged heavily with Biblical imagery. Of course, reading his novel only confirmed these ideas and subsequently the articulation of the divine, of religion and of worship in his work has expanded to become ever more subtly nuanced. However, perhaps one of Cave’s most open explanations of his understanding of ‘God’ comes in the lecture ‘The Flesh Made Word’, written for and broadcast by BBC Radio 3’s Religious Services in 1996: God is a product of the creative imagination, and God is that imagination taken flight. As a child I believed that to use the imagination was wicked. I saw my imagination as a dark room with a large, bolted door that housed all manner of shameful fantasies.35

One aspect of the Puer Aeternus archetype is the desire ‘to transcend the mundanity of worldly life and be free to devote everything to the creative and spiritual vision which is considered life’s blood’.36 This is the inspirational aspect of the Puer archetype, the creative drive manifested through introspection and engagement with the unconscious (Jung interestingly sees this as a potentially negative aspect of the Puer, making links to the self-absorption of a nation that leads to fascist


Stanley Booth, ‘A Hound Dog, to the Manor Born’, 1968, in Jonathan Eisen (ed.), The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (New York, 1969), p. 48. 35 Nick Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, The Secret Life of the Love Song, CD (King Mob, 2000). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 36 Rob Preece, ‘Individuation or Institution’, Mudra Articles, available at http://www. /mudra_individuation.html, accessed 10 Aug 2007.

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


Germany under the Nazis).37 Indeed, despite his debased nature, Euchrid is a profoundly creative individual, creating both the kingdom of Doghead after his father’s death, his sanctum in the swamp, orchestrating the deaths of the preacher Abie Poe and the hobo Kike, and unconsciously constructing his own interiorised psychic terrain. In Euchrid, Cave presents us with the negative aspects of the Puer but in such a way that he is never wholly beyond redemption, never wholly unsympathetic as he careers along his own internal logic. The creative aspect of God/the unconscious is further outlined by the symbols of deluge, the crow and the twin, all manifestations of symbols that connect the earthly realm to Heaven. Indeed, in ‘Tupelo’ it is the King’s mastery of the rain (spirituality, creativity, the unconscious) that makes him significant. While the identification of the Puer Aeternus archetype as a model for Euchrid, and further the model for Cave’s imagining of Elvis, may give us some sense of broader cultural associations, the mechanics of the use of Presley as sign and myth require recognition too. Euchrid is not Elvis. Euchrid may be an imagined version of Jesse Garon. Perhaps more satisfyingly, Euchrid can be understood as an inversion of the mythical, archetypal Elvis. While the suggestion here is that both Euchrid and Elvis share certain archetypal characteristics, they clearly differ in many respects. However, it is Cave’s inversion of the Presley myth that outlines its significance and power. The Carnivalesque Elvis Such inversions in literary terms have often been understood in light of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, drawing inspiration from the grand European carnivals of the Middle Ages. Bakhtin, in his meditation upon Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–42),38 Rabelais and His World,39 understands the profanity and scatological humour inherent in Rabelais’ work as a means of inverting social formations and hierarchies for satirical effect. This inversion is the carnivalesque, inspired by the licensed subversion of power, gender, class and social and spiritual authority. In the carnival social rules and systems, ‘terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette’40 are temporarily overturned and suspended, providing a grotesque mirror to society and governance that is inherently subversive. Men become women, peasants become priests and kings, humans become animals, what is proper is made improper. Central to Bakhtin’s understanding of carnival is Jung, in James Jarrett (ed.), Jung’s Seminars on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Princeton, NJ, 1997). 38 Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. M.A. Screech (London, 2006). 39 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 1965, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN, 1984). 40 Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Carnival and the Carnivalesque’, in John Storey (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 2nd edition (Hemel Hempstead, 1998), p. 251. 37

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


the grotesque body, the lionisation of deformity and malady presented in carnival as a means of connecting the collective with a sense of both the individual body’s temporal limitations and the timelessness of communal action. The body ideal (a desire to improve the body’s less attractive aspects, a transcendence of the flesh) is relegated in favour of the deformed and the abject. In Cave’s work the deformed and the abject are commonplace, and particularly so in And the Ass Saw the Angel. Euchrid is the carnivalesque Elvis (himself already a carnivalesque figure in relation to the prevailing cultural conservatism of America in the 1950s), an inversion of the myth of Presley that illuminates the archetypal power and primality of the Puer Aeternus archetype. Euchrid is the most rock ’n’ roll of all figures, the eternal rebel, railing against his family, the people of the Ukulore Valley, himself, his body and of course the religion of the Ukulites. Interestingly, one of Euchrid’s closest literary templates is Hazel Motes from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,41 an admitted influence on Cave’s literary and lyrical work.42 Motes is a young man returning back to the American South from the war (one assumes that this is the Second World War). Upon his return, he both rejects and affirms his grandfather’s role as preacher by starting the Church Without Christ, a means to deny the tenets of redemption and salvation through believing in nothing. Motes, while certainly more articulate than Euchrid, is both an inversion of traditional Christianity in its more fundamental forms and an expression of the grotesque body: toward the culmination of the book Motes wraps his body in barbed wire, fills his shoes with glass and stones and blinds himself by rubbing lime into his eyes. The Church Without Christ is Motes’ version of Euchrid’s Doghead (obviously itself an inversion of Godhead and God’s kingdom), an inversion of religious faith that points to a deeper truth beyond doctrine. Motes too presents aspects of the Puer Aeternus, he is a peculiarly disconnected figure in O’Connor’s work, often failing to respond to the characters around him, while simultaneously berating them and preaching his inverted rhetoric. The daughter of the preacher Asa Hawks (Asa is a likely model for Cave’s Abie Poe), Sabbath, says of Hazel, ‘I like his eyes … They don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking’.43 Hazel Motes is as interiorised and narcissistic as Euchrid Eucrow, the introverted youth destined for sublimation into the unconscious/divine. If Cave taps into the myth of Elvis Presley, it is in an inverted form. By taking the biographical details of Presley’s life, and connecting them with a wider Biblical discourse, he is capable of tapping into an archetypal vein that connects both religion and popular culture, both through Presley and his own work. The exact details of Presley’s biography are not as important as his perceived significance, Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, 1952 (London, 1968). Cave performed extracts from And the Ass Saw the Angel prior to its publication alongside a screening of John Houston’s film of Wise Blood (1980) on the 23rd and 24th of March 1988 at the Mandolin Cinema in Sydney. 43 O’Connor, Wise Blood, p. 73. 41 42

Oedipus Wrecks: Cave and the Presley Myth


and Cave’s Presley is one of many in the popular domain, as Marcus’s work illustrates. Through a carnivalesque inversion of the Elvis story (the bad son/seed survives at the expense of his good twin, the ogress mother replaces the beloved Gladys, the fictional flooding of Tupelo outlined in John Lee Hooker’s song of the same name44 becomes a Biblical deluge that punishes the unrighteous), Cave taps into archetypal images that shape and give form to both the Presley myth and the creative process itself. By means of carnivalesque inversion and a meditation on the grotesque body, the inverted King of Doghead becomes a route to the divine, the creative and the unconscious. In this way it is possible to understand Euchrid, and the articulations of the Presley myth throughout Cave’s work, as manifestations of the unconscious creative drive lurking in the dark room behind the bolted door. It is in this manifestation that Euchrid assumes his mantel, as he slips beneath the quicksand, as martyr, as God, as The King.


First recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, 1965, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984). ——, ‘Carnival and the Carnivalesque’, in John Storey (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 2nd edition (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, 1998). The Birthday Party, The Bad Seed/Mutiny!, CD (Mute Records, 1983). Booth, Stanley, ‘A Hound Dog, to the Manor Born’, 1968, in Jonathan Eisen (ed.), The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1969). Cave, Nick, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London: Penguin, 1989). ——, ‘The Flesh Made Word’, The Secret Life of the Love Song, CD (King Mob, 2000). Cave, Nick, and the Bad Seeds, The Firstborn is Dead, CD (Mute Records, 1985). ––––, The Good Son, CD (Mute Records, 1990). ––––, Henry’s Dream, CD (Mute Records, 1992). ––––, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). ––––, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Jarrett, James (ed.), Jung’s Seminars on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). Johnston, Ian, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1996). Jung, Carl, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967). ——, Aspects of the Masculine, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge, 1989). Marcus, Greil, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (London: Penguin, 1991). O’Connor, Flannery, Wise Blood, 1952 (London: Faber and Faber, 1968). Preece, Rob, ‘Individuation or Institution’, Mudra Articles, available at http:// /mudra_individuation.html, accessed 10 Aug 2007. Rabelais, Francois, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. M.A. Screech (London: Penguin Classics, 2006). Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995). Sanders, Denis, dir., Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1970). Von Franz, Marie-Louise, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood, 1970 (Boston, MA: Sigo Press, 1985).

Chapter 11

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave Lyn McCredden

Nick Cave is not a theologian. Nor does he claim to be one. What Cave’s lyrics address, in multiple ways, however, is sacredness. While early twentieth-century anthropologists and historians of religion such as Mircea Eliade tended to theorise ‘the sacred’ as ‘the opposite of the profane’, Cave’s sacred is deeply enmeshed in the human dimensions of flesh, erotics and violence. The sacred – the holy, divine, hierophanic, epiphanic – and the profane do not stand apart in his work, but are in dynamic and conflicting conjunction, creating a sprawling, unsystematic and confrontational dialogue with divine forces which may or may not be ‘there’. Institutional religion does not fare well in his lyrics, but nor is it ignored. What we find stamped across his songs, over and over, is the dark, lonely figure of a man caught up in desire for a divine source or balm. Music journalist Roni Sarig writes evocatively that Cave’s sixteenth album, The Boatman’s Call (1997), sounds like Cave’s attempt to poison his cake and eat it too. For a record so resolute in its denial of divinity, The Boatman’s Call’s obsession with religious themes and imagery might seem contradictory if they hadn’t come from someone like Cave, who fancies himself a fallen angel searching for a ladder back to heaven. Where Gothic meets cathedral, there resides, for better or worse, our dark saint Nick.

Fallen angels and heavenly ladders notwithstanding, ‘the poisoned, desirable cake’ does indeed capture the ambivalent object of Cave’s theology. But such ambivalence can be seen to arise not simply from the personality of Cave, selfstyled ‘fallen angel’. Rather, Cave’s work is in a long line of gothic and Romantic  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. W.R. Trask (Paris, 1957), p. 10. For contemporary discussions on the conjunction of postmodernity and the sacred, including debates surrounding the relationship of the sacred and the profane, see Phillippa Berry and Andrew Wernick (eds), Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion (New York; London, 1992).  Roni Sarig, Review of The Boatman’s Call [Online], available at http://www., accessed 28 Aug 2007.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

writing which understands ‘the beauty and the terror’ of the created, carnal world. Gothic met cathedral long ago. In his most powerful songs a theology emerges which does not simply endure or oppose human violence, abjection and the flesh, but sees them as intimately entwined with any access to the sacred. Many Cave song lyrics are tidal assaults on religious pieties and comforting clichés. Most of Cave’s Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and solo song lyrics, written across 25 years, are available on the web. On a number of websites such as All the Lyrics, at the individual song level there are advertisements for ‘Christian Music’ or ‘SMS me bible scriptures: Daily scriptures txt to your mobile Bible SMS, 5 day free trial now!’ There is also a link to ‘Christ – The Hunger for Him, And the Adoring of Him. Everything he can do for Man and Woman’, which leads you to a multilingual evangelical site headed ‘The Missing Cross to Purity’. As those Christian website advertisers recognise, there are crossovers here. Cave may not – and surely could not – attract the religious fundamentalists, but his many addresses to God, the pleas for justice in this world and the next, and the desire to invoke and embrace a God who so often transmutes into divine absence are what constitute Cave’s arena of the sacred. Cave’s sacred is part prophetic Jesus, part Father in the Christian tradition, part Old Testament force of retribution, part metonym for human love and sexual energy, part violent power with unknown capabilities, part absence, part extension of the Cave ego? Is there a system to Cave’s sacred? (And does that matter?) That is, can we discern in the spectrum of the songwriter’s attention to the sacred anything like recurring chords, not to say a manifesto or theology? Or does ‘God’ in the many Cave manifestations of sacredness amount to a convenient – or monstrous – hole into which the songwriter pours his own psychic imaginings? I will argue, through a reading of the lyrics, that what we have in Cave’s work amounts to an idiosyncratic but also embracingly contemporary theology of the fleshed or carnal sacred, given the darkly erotic and violent contexts in which Cave’s visions of sacredness unfold so often. Take for example the song ‘Brompton Oratory’. The setting for this lyric is the nineteenth–century baroque and Italianate Oratory of St Philip Neri, a Roman Catholic repository of excessive aesthetics, including the 12 stone apostles in the Nave referred to in the second stanza, carved in 1680 for the Cathedral in Siena. Into this ‘great shadowed vault’ the melancholic, defiant lover, a recurrent Cave figure, trails his grief. He has lost love, it seems, and is a seeker of divine comfort while simultaneously doubting the existence – or availability to humanity – of such a divine force:

 All the Lyrics [Online], available at, accessed 10 Aug 2007.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Brompton Oratory’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


Up those stone steps I climb Hail this joyful day’s return Into its great shadowed vault I go Hail the Pentecostal morn The reading is from Luke 24 Where Christ returns to his loved ones I look at the stone apostles Think that it’s alright for some And I wish that I was made of stone So that I would not have to see A beauty impossible to define A beauty impossible to believe A beauty impossible to endure The blood imparted in little sips The smell of you still on my hands As I bring the cup up to my lips

In the brooding words, set in odd juxtaposition to the quietly buoyant, syncopated rhythm, many contradictions open out: the morn is Pentecostal for the speaker, a joyful return, but he wishes he was made of stone in order not to feel so much. The day’s reading in the mass is Luke 24, which contains the central Christian narrative of transcendence, the resurrection of Christ; but the song merely describes the passage as narrating ‘Christ’s return to his loved ones’, a wonderful use of Cave understatement. But the core tension of the song, reflected in these many smaller tensions, is that of the lover’s condition, between flesh and spirit: ‘the smell of you still on my hands / As I bring the cup up to my lips’. It remains uncertain the extent to which the loss he is lamenting is carnal, and in what ways his melancholic state – ‘Forlorn and exhausted, baby / By the absence of you’ – opens out into a spiritual hunger in the absence of the divine, a state evident in the singer’s prayer, or wish, that he might be made of stone, So that I would not have to see A beauty impossible to define, A beauty impossible to believe, A beauty impossible to endure, The blood imparted in little sips.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


The beauty here can refer equally to the fleshed lover and to a divine impossibility – conjoined here in a secular prayer – to be turned to stone like the 12 apostles who look down from their unfeeling perches at suffering men and women. Rhythmically, the final stanza’s stress draws out the word ‘Aaab-sence’, making it palpable; but we have also just heard in sensuous, immediate terms of the woman’s bodily presence for him, at the very point of the mass when the divine presence is invoked. In this way the experience of the ritual – of worship and communion – is both healing and estranging, for this is a theology which emerges from earthy, fleshed desires: the communion wine is described directly and simply as ‘the blood’ and it mingles immediately with ‘The smell of you still on my hands’. The contradiction – some might say blasphemy – embraced in these opposites being brought into relation, also fuels the penultimate stanza’s cry: No God up in the sky, No devil beneath the sea, Could do the job that you did, baby, Of bringing me to my knees.

Sexual and religious submission conjoin here. This invoking of the very sexual, bodily forces, which traditionally should be displaced in order to worship a transcendent god, telescope together the erotic and the divine. Further, there is a fusing of sexual and divine love, of the powers of the loved woman with those of god and devil, which register the essence of Cave’s sacred vision: the inescapable, incarnate force of the divine. The loved woman is just as absent as God or devil, but the presence of all meet in the suppliant brought to his knees. The language of the song, together with its syncopated, insistent, forward tilting rhythm, invoke a love which is in mourning at the bodily absence of its loved object, but 

Blasphemy, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, has three main stems: 1. the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God. 2. the act of claiming the attributes of deity. 3. irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable. While this essay does not attribute blasphemy to Cave’s writing, it is possible to see how some would read his equation of human love with the divine as blasphemous according to the second attribute, let alone his questioning of violence as implicated in, if not related to the divine. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary [Online], available at http://, accessed 6 Jan 2008.  Incarnational theology covers a broad spectrum of beliefs. Christian incarnationalism is discussed by Jerry H. Gill, ‘Faith in Learning: Integrative Education and Incarnational Theology’, Christian Century, 17 (1979): 1009: ‘Human existence is embodied existence, and God’s involvement and interaction with us have come in this mode. In the JudeoChristian tradition the body is basic and good, in contrast to the dualism of classical Greek philosophy … By indwelling (not just “borrowing”) a body, God made a statement about the nature and worth of human existence – and about divine character as well. Moreover, the Christian hope is for a resurrected body, as well as a new heaven and earth, not for the immortality of a disembodied soul’.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


simultaneously registers the body and its senses as the real paths to the spirit. It is one example of Cave’s many representations of melancholia as enabling, the site of fusion between body and spirit. So, ‘Brompton Oratory’ entangles the sacred with the abject – the blood, the tears, the pain, the sacrifice in human to human and human to divine relations. The murdered or tortured body, brought to its knees, is a recurrent motif for Cave. His lyrics, and the motivating force of his ongoing artistic practice, are permeated with a discourse which parallels Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, and in particular its effects in the evolution of traditional religions into artistic forms of sacredness: The various means of purifying the abject – the various catharses – make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion. Seen from that standpoint, the artistic experience, which is rooted in the abject it utters and by the same token purifies, appears as the essential component of religiosity. That is perhaps why it is destined to survive the collapse of the historical forms of religions.

This ‘religiosity’ is apparent in Cave’s enduringly melancholic encounters with the abject limits of the human – the violence done to the corpse, the entanglement of innocence with darkly erotic drives. Kristeva outlines here the connections of art as a practice in its relationship to abjection and the sacred. The multiple artistic acts of representing and engaging with the abject – catharsis, self-abasement, guilt, blood sacrifice, the body of the other, railing against the cruelties of fate or the divine – are Cave’s par excellence; consider, for example, ‘Idiot Prayer’ as the murderer envisages his victim/lover, ‘Your face comes to me from the depths, dear / Your silent mouth mouths, “Yes”, dear / Dark red and big with blood’. We see an abject approach too in the threat issued to stained sinners: ‘you’ll scrub and you’ll scrub / But the trouble is, bud / The blood it won’t wash off / No, it won’t come off! or the grim lament of ‘Darker with the Day’, with its condemned man finding in the scriptures ‘a woolly lamb dozing in an issue of blood / And a gilled Jesus shivering on a fisherman’s hook’.10 The abject is in part what draws out a fascination with those liminal spaces where the body melts into fluid, or waste, where it encounters ‘the other’ to its own supposed solidity, in death, or other kinds of transmogrification. The album The Boatman’s Call introduces us to the mythical gothic Boatman suggestive of Julia Kristeva, ‘Approaching Abjection’, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1982), pp. 1–31, 17.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Idiot Prayer’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘City of Refuge’, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 10 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Darker with the Day’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

that important liminal figure, Charon, controller of the passenger list for that final journey across the river Styx to the Underworld. Charon has the power to ban the dead from his boat, condemning them to haunt the riverbanks for centuries. It is a highly evocative album title, pointing to Cave’s own prophetic, playful and serious sense of vocation in his songwriting. His songs are bridges between earthly and sacred places, or more aptly, they are transitory and often teetering structures pushing out beyond the limits of sense, order and proper knowledge. ‘Into My Arms’ from The Boatman’s Call,11 perhaps Cave’s commercially best-known song, gives us the same unbeliever hovering between belief and unbelief. While he cannot accept the proposition of ‘an interventionist god’, he addresses his own doubt with the repeated structure: I can’t believe, but if I did I would kneel … I don’t believe in an interventionist God, But I know, darling, that you do. But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him Not to intervene when it came to you Not to touch a hair on your head To leave you as you are And if He felt He had to direct you Then direct you into my arms

There is a gentle, high-serious humour at play in the repeated structure, a doubter’s dialogue with his (hypothetically) believing self. The loved one is given god-like presence, is to be worshipped, surrounded by angels; but so too is the singer, who proceeds to give his own directions to this non-existent god: not to intervene, not to touch a hair on your head, to leave you as you are. In the final stanza the lover does become a believer ‘in love’, ‘in some kind of path’. His request – keep your candles burning Make a journey bright and pure That she’ll keep returning Always and evermore Into my arms, O Lord

– seems at first a request to the lover, but it becomes a prayer, an address to a Lord who just might have the power to intervene, to broaden the reach and intensity of the love experienced, to enable the lovers to ‘walk, like Christ, in grace and love’. The middle stanza of ‘Into My Arms’ teases and is seductive in its imagined merging of the divine and the human. The lover reveals himself and his love as 11 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Into My Arms’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


humanly vulnerable to harm and time, and in need of divine intervention, with the song’s chorus – ‘into my arms, O Lord’ – reiterating an image of both sexual union and the protective figure of the old testament, interventionist God: ‘The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms’.12 Many of the lyrics on The Boatman’s Call hold this tension between doubt and belief, with the anthemic ‘There Is a Kingdom’13 declaring belief more fulsomely than most: There is a kingdom There is a king And he lives without And he lives within There is a kingdom There is a king There is a king And he is everything

The voice and the swelling hymn-like repetitions are prophetic, pointing to an incarnate king, within and without, encompassing ‘everything’. The song draws on a thoroughgoing kind of incarnationalism. Yet within this song, and more overtly in other songs such as ‘The Mercy Seat’, and ‘O My Lord’, there is also a violence that the sacred does not simply oppose, but with which it seems to be enmeshed. The first stanza of ‘There Is A Kingdom’ is in a voice whose source is hard to pin down: Just like a bird that sings up the sun In a dawn so very dark Such is my faith for you Such is my faith And all the world’s darkness can’t swallow up A single spark Such is my love for you Such is my love

The voice is God-like, pronouncing with unquenchable faith that not ‘a single spark’ of light will be swallowed up by the world’s darkness. The locution is odd – ‘such is my faith for you’. Is it a creator God speaking with faith in his creation? Is it a Christ figure, bearing the faith ‘for’ all humanity? At one level, the imagination


Deuteronomy 33.27. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There Is a Kingdom’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 13


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

is Manichean here,14 creating a world split between light and darkness: ‘the starry heavens above me’, ‘this mist of tears’ surrounding. However, there is equally, and even contradictorily, an incarnational understanding at work too, a desire which insists on the all-encompassing, immanent and palpable divine kingdom, already present, if only we could see it ‘in this sweet day’. ‘There Is a Kingdom’ only indirectly suggests a world of sacred warfare which might be characterised as ‘Old Testament’, except that it is also characteristic of so-called Christian fundamentalist notions of ‘spiritual warfare’ as well. The second part of the biblical text from Deuteronomy quoted previously – ‘The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms’ – states: ‘He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and will say, “Destroy!”’15 ‘There is a Kingdom’ invokes the human desire for such a place beyond the dark and unjust world of tears. The register of many Cave songs is apocalyptically Manichean and retributive, however, intrigued by divine and human eschatological scenarios. For example, if we move back in history to Cave’s 1988 album Tender Prey we find songs such as ‘Mercy’,16 which is not particularly about mercy, but about warfare between evil forces and a figure who appears to be John the Baptist, standing in water in ‘the middle month of winter’, deserted by his followers: Thrown into a dungeon Bread and water was my portion Faith – my only weapon To rest the devil’s legion The speak-hole would slide open A viper’s voice would plead Thick with innuendo Syphilis and Greed And she cried ‘Mercy’

The voice of the viper through the speak-hole mockingly mouthing the words of repentance – ‘thick with innuendo / Syphilis and Greed’ – represents all the worldly evils ranged against the saint; the solitary martyr against ‘the devil’s legion’. The Baptist is touchingly vulnerable, crying out for mercy, wondering if his cousin who is performing miracles elsewhere will find him. If we know the story we know it won’t happen, he will not receive mercy, at least in this world. 14 Manicheanism is both an ancient religion, and a more general term meaning polarising or split between distinct opposites, such as good and evil, body and spirit. For a contemporary scholarly account of Manicheanism and its relationship to Christian theology through the theology of Augustine, see J. Kevin Coyle, The Manichean Debate (New York, 2006). 15 Deuteronomy 33.27. 16 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Mercy’, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


The vision of the moon, ‘turned toward me / Like a platter made of gold’ reminds us about where he is heading. ‘City of Refuge’,17 from the same album, also separates the sheep from the goats in Manichean terms: You better run, you better run You better run to the City of Refuge. You stand before your maker In a state of shame, Because your robes are covered in mud While you kneel at the feet Of a woman of the street The gutters will run with blood They will run with blood!

This is apocalyptic theology with its vision of the last days. It is a world riven in two, with refuge for the believer and gutters running with blood and shame for the rest in those days ‘of madness / My brother, my sister / When you’re dragged toward the Hell-mouth’. This kind of religious discourse would be at home in those old-time evangelists’ tents in the American South. As in And the Ass Saw the Angel we can see here an attraction to images of heaven and hell, of apocalyptic climax. Cave’s fascination with such contexts, and the promise they seem to offer of unequivocal judgement, might be read as a part of his ongoing desire for justice and its manifest absence in human affairs. This is a path fundamentalists – political and religious – often take, but Cave is far from fundamentalist in the uses to which he puts such desire for justice. For example, Cave’s film script and score for The Proposition (2005) are steeped in images of frontier violence, revenge and retribution; yet the narrative does not provide a polarising or simplistic solution. Captain Stanley, played with vulnerable physicality by actor Ray Winstone, begins by seeing himself in stark terms as ‘an agent of civilisation’ come to dispatch the brutish Burns brothers, particularly the gang’s charismatic and violent leader Arthur. In setting out his proposition to younger brother Charlie, a plan to capture the maniacal Arthur, Stanley says: He is out there, where no man should be. While in town, God fearing Christians whisper his name. But no one, Charlie, no one talks about what he did at the Hopkins’ homestead. Though you and I, and little Mikey here, we know what happened there … and we all know who was responsible for the atrocity …18 17 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘City of Refuge’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 18 Nick Cave, The Proposition, film script excerpt in Rouge 7 (2005) [Online], available at, accessed 25 Aug 2007.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Here we have a retrospective vision of colonial violence and brutality, a twentyfirst-century version of a world which emerges partly from the genre of the Western, with its good guy / bad guy frontier heroics, but imbued with a violent metaphysical register too. Arthur’s violence is beyond humanity, beyond what the ‘God fearing Christians’ of the town can speak aloud. The savagery seems to be even more heinous because the killing of the Hopkins family was carried out by ‘its own kind’, by white men, Irish men, and not ‘even’ by the blacks. Again, Stanley stands up to the evil he sees embodied in Burns: I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a bad place. The blacks will not go there. Not even the black trackers … I suppose, in time the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans. I aim to bring him down. I aim to show that he is a man like any other. I aim to hurt him. Well I’ve thought long and hard about that.19

While Stanley’s speech begins in fundamentalist terms, however, it inadvertently acknowledges the humanity of his quarry (‘a man like any other’), and his own desire for violence (‘I aim to hurt him’). The twist Cave performs in The Proposition is in allowing us to glimpse the contradictory charisma of Arthur, a man who can poetically grasp the beauty of the land he rides through, as well as commit atrocious acts of violence. This doubleness of character is a typical Cave vision, one which sometimes calls on a response of forgiveness (we are all capable of being an ass and an angel) and sometimes on retribution. Equally, Stanley comes to realise the naïveté, if not arrogance, of his own policing version of reality in a place far from the halls of British justice. One overarching realisation offered by The Proposition is of the raw physicality, even the brutishness of all human attempts at justice, and the scapegoating and bloodletting that our fallenness necessarily entails. French theorist of religions, René Girard, theorises the historical ties between art, violence and the sacred. In his highly influential work he focuses on the scapegoat, the figure that takes the full force of ancient societal warring, but a figure which also enables the primitive urge towards violence to be repressed in ‘modern’ societies. Girard’s historical and anthropological studies of religions reveal two significant and counterpointed aspects of violence, scapegoating and bloodletting, expressed powerfully in his accounts of blood, that abject medium, symbol of both cleansing and violence: Only blood itself, blood whose purity has been guaranteed by the performance of appropriate rites – the blood in short, of sacrificial victims – can accomplish this feat … The properties of blood, for example, vividly illustrate the entire operation of violence … Blood that dries on the victim soon loses its viscous quality and becomes first a dark sore, then a roughened scab. Blood that is allowed to congeal on its victim is the impure product of violence, illness or death. In 19


Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


contrast to this contaminated substance is the fresh blood of newly slaughtered victims, crimson and free flowing.20

On Cave’s album Murder Ballads (1996) (sometimes referred to as Cave’s ‘joke’ album for its often camp renditions of old crime narratives) the grim song of the lonely traveller in ‘Song of Joy’ takes the notion of sacrifice, and of the ancient human propensity for violence and grief, to its intimate source in the bosom of the family and sexual love.21 The bloodletting in ‘Song of Joy’ is well described by Girard’s first notion of impure and unredeeming blood. The narrator of the song appears as a stranger at the door of a house one frozen night asking for mercy and a place to say. He proceeds, uninvited, to tell the tale of his wife Joy, their three little girls, and the slow spiral of their life together into horror and death. Joy quickly turns from a ‘sweet and happy thing’, to a melancholic creature with haunted eyes, ‘As if she saw into the heart of her final blood-soaked night / Those lunatic eyes, that hungry kitchen knife’. On her final night while the husband was away visiting a sick friend his wife is bound with electrical tape, In her mouth a gag. She’d been stabbed repeatedly And stuffed into a sleeping bag. In their very cots my girls were robbed of their lives Method of murder much the same as my wife’s Method of murder much the same as my wife’s

As listeners we are asked simultaneously to sympathise with the poor husband, but also to be suspicious. The storyteller husband has witnessed carnal mayhem, but like that earlier metaphysical traveller, the Ancient Mariner, he is strangely obsessive and intruding, marked by the blood of his family, not clean: I drift from land to land. I am upon your step and you are a family man. Outside the vultures wheel, The wolves howl, the serpents hiss. And to extend this small favour, friend, Would be the sum of earthly bliss. Do you reckon me a friend?

20 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD, 1977), pp. 36–7. 21 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Song of Joy’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

The narrator here is one of Cave’s losers in love, but with a markedly violent twist. We have to ask: is he murderer as well as victim? The graffiti left by the murderer is by John Milton on the walls in the victim’s blood. The police are investigating at tremendous cost. In my house he wrote ‘his red right hand’.

Cave places us momentarily in Paradise Lost where all are victims and perpetrators, fallen creatures. So many of Cave’s lovers are murderers, so many are the ones sinned against. Many are both. This vision of the double nature of humans haunts Cave’s theology, and perhaps is responsible for the often passive aggression (melancholic defiance?) of his lovers. Girard’s theory of violence within the sacred has another theoretical turn, though, and moves away from the historical and evolving sense of ritual sacrifice and bloodletting towards a Christian understanding of the relationship between violence, sacredness and love: The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence. But its expulsion is revealed in a more and more obvious fashion, and by the same process the Logos of violence is revealed as what can only exist by expelling the true Logos and feeding upon it in one way or another.22

This is not exactly the feel of ‘Song of Joy’, however. It is more appropriate, perhaps, as the back-story to ‘Brompton Oratory’. Girard’s theory here is full of images from Paradise Lost: Logos against Logos; violence, which leads to expulsion from the garden, met by the long processes of redemption through a sacrificial Logos of love. But Milton, like Girard and Cave, also enshrines a less polarised figure of Lucifer, if we are to believe William Blake’s description of Milton as ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’.23 Cave, though, is a shifty and much less consistent – or less dogmatic – theologian than Milton or Blake. This very shiftiness, the constantly hungry imagination of Cave, is perhaps his salvation. Nowhere does he claim definitive positions on religion or the divine, but everywhere he is measuring the capacity of his words to stretch towards the sacred. Cave’s fleshed sacred is characterised by sexual energy (or its loss), as much as by violence. It often takes on prophetic resonances, but nowhere does it claim the mantle of religion. In her 1999 essay on performance art and the escalating use of blood and violence, critic Dawn Perlmutter writes:

22 René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford, CA, 1987), p. 274. 23 William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1793 (London, 1927), p. 373.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


artists are increasingly using blood and violence in art and audiences are attending. This art can be referred to as ‘postmodern mortification’ because it represents a spiritual attempt by artists to dismantle personal and societal boundaries through physical sacrifice as a ritual form of purification. Although … this fails as religious ritual, it is a ritual process nonetheless. What will define the progress of this genre is not so much the artists as the audience. If audience participation begins to take place, participation being defined as religious interaction and communal transformation, performance art will no longer be positioned in the category of the aesthetic but will be designated by society as a new religious movement.24

While Cave is not a performance artist per se, he does perform his theology; and his work does ask for more response from an audience than swaying to the beat. It is, in line with Perlmutter’s descriptions of performance art and its reach, arguably too playful and self-mocking to fall into the category of ‘a new religious movement’. Cave’s art, nevertheless, does have designs upon its audiences. It does call out prophetically, pointing towards human sexuality, love, desire to worship, dying, grief and bodiliness as processes encompassed by the sacred. On the early album Tender Prey, ‘The Mercy Seat’ is a strange, gothic and performative narrative, a dialogue half sung, half spoken, which warps together human retributive justice and a different, hoped for ‘beyond’ of death.25 It is a performance in that the speaker is constructing and deconstructing the self before our eyes in a macabre dance of self-exposure: Like my good hand I Tatooed e.v.i.l. across its brother’s fist That filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist. In heaven his throne is made of gold The ark of his testament is stowed A throne from which I’m told All history does unfold. Down here it’s made of wood and wire And my body is on fire And god is never far away. Into the mercy seat I climb My head is shaved, my head is wired And like a moth that tries 24 Dawn Perlmutter, ‘The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from Art to Murder’, Anthropoetics, 5.2 (1999–2000): 11. 25 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Mercy Seat’, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


To enter the bright eye I go shuffling out of life Just to hide in death awhile And anyway I never lied.

Very much in the spirit of the film Dead Man Walking (1995)26 which came out two years after Tender Prey, this song enacts the last moments of a man who has obviously been violent, his good hand not knowing what his evil hand did. The song charts the progress to the mercy seat; it also charts the progress from denial of his own actions, to an acknowledgement that he has lied, that he is not innocent. The sacred dimension of the song comes not in the personal biography being narrated but in the way mercy becomes palpable. There are many images offered for this ‘place’ of mercy, the electric chair being the starkest and most ironic: heaven’s golden throne, the bright eye of god, death as rest. It is in the condemned man’s desires, however, his longing for a place beyond this world’s ‘measuring of truth’, that the place of mercy can be located. While there is a grim bravado in his acceptance of his fate, there is also forgiveness of himself, a ‘nearly wholly innocent’ man. The narrative traces his admission of his crimes, but underneath this a different notion of mercy or grace operates, one which does not depend on his ‘works’ – his guilt or innocence – but on his acknowledgement of his own body, his life as always both good and evil: My kill-hand is called e.v.i.l. Wears a wedding band that’s g.o.o.d. ’tis a long-suffering shackle Collaring all that rebel blood.

This is not the performative centre of the song, but it is the sacred centre. In fact in some ears it may sound like special pleading or self-justifying, but this moment, which understands criminality not just as individual pathology, nor as spectacle, but as the universal human condition, is a theologically rich insight. Death is understood and embraced within this insight as both frightening and welcoming. It becomes the place of solace, or at least the portal into another place. Further, the song perplexingly conjoins images of the electric chair – symbol of retributive law, punishment, proof, sin, human justice – with the mercy seat of a saviour who might also have died in bodily form ‘like some ragged stranger’. The implications of this conjunction are not clear-cut, of course. Is the grisly chair of wires and smoke and burning an instrument of divine justice, or is it the antithesis of any merciful God? Cave writes:

Tim Robbins, dir., Dead Man Walking (Gramercy Films, 1995).


Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


In heaven his throne is made of gold, The ark of his testament is stowed, A throne from which I’m told All history does unfold. Down here it’s made of wood and wire And my body is on fire And god is never far away.

Does this comparison of sacred and profane realms of justice draw the two spheres together, underlining their collusion, or does it imagine their vast difference? The question is left open in true Cave style, resulting in a perplexing entanglement of horror at the violent corporeality of human justice. There is a complicating sense of necessary bloodletting, and a hope for a different world no longer having to judge ‘All things either good or ungood’, a realm of grace. The compulsive, whipping rhythms of the song create an urgency, almost panic, in the expressed need for such a place. It is arguably in the less resolved, more ambiguous songs like ‘Mercy Seat’, and in his later work such as the 2001 album No More Shall We Part, that we find Cave’s most haunting theology, where divine and human intermingle, or impinge on each other in dialogic and disturbing ways. The world inhabited by the lovers in ‘Gates of the Garden’ is one which is haunted, ancient and dying:27 Beneath the creeping shadow of the tower The bell from St. Edmunds informs me of the hour. I turn to find you waiting there for me, In sunlight and I see the way that you breathe, Alive and leaning on the gates of the garden, Alive and leaning on the gates of the garden, All alive and leaning on the gates of the garden. Leave these ancient places to the angels, Let the saints attend to their keeping of their cathedrals, And leave the dead beneath the ground so cold, For God is in this hand that I hold, As we open up the gates. As we open up the gates, We open up the gates of the garden. Won’t you meet me at the gates, Won’t you meet me at the gates, Won’t you meet me at the gates To the garden.

27 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Gates of the Garden’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

The temporal world, so poignantly evoked in Cave’s world weary, slow, almost spoken presentation on ‘The Gates of the Garden’, is one of abjection and death, populated by ‘Fugitive fathers, sickly infants, decent mothers / Runaways and suicidal lovers’. The imaginative work of the song enacts a return to ‘the garden’ and to an originary moment, however, where human, sexual, breathing love provides a path of return: ‘For God is in this hand I hold’. While the song is a Romantic plea to the lover – ‘Won’t you meet me at the gates’ – there seems to be a confidence that the desire will be met. She is there, ‘alive and leaning on the gates to the garden’. In the sadder, abject ‘Hallelujah’ from the same album,28 the coddled and timid narrator has lost the thread of his desire and his art: ‘My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb / And my piano crouched in the corner of my room / With all its teeth bared’. While his nurse, who feeds and governs him, is away he momentarily attempts a journey; while his pyjamas are clinging to him ‘like a shroud’ he nevertheless begins to sing ‘hallelujah’, for There rose before me a little house With all hope and dreams kept within. A woman’s voice close to my ear Said, ‘Why don’t you come in here?’ ‘You looked soaked to the skin’ Soaked to the skin, soaked to the skin, soaked to the skin. Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah. I turned to the woman and the woman was young. I extended a hearty salutation, But I knew if my nurse had been here She would never in a thousand years Permit me to accept that invitation.

Cave lays before us his little parable of desire and hope pitted against human fear and containment. The song contemplates the wisdom of William Blake’s ‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold: / Bring me my Arrows of desire’,29 but the narrator resigns from his journey, turning away from reckless passion. Here, as so often in Cave, desire and imagination are erotically and compassionately charged, emerging from ‘A woman’s voice close to my ear’, free from the prohibitions of the nurse and her salvation of cocoa and medication. The freedom, youth, and erotic drive on that ‘first day of May’ are pitched against the stern practicality of the nay-sayers 28 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Hallelujah’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 29 William Blake, ‘Milton: And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times’ (1804), in The Portable Blake, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York, 1971), p. 412.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


and the narrator’s own human timidity. Dried up imagination and pain are met by a reckless ‘Hallelujah’. In fact, each chorus of ‘Hallelujah’ emerges directly from the moments of abjection, as if produced from those moments, but also in order to combat them. The struggle can’t be sustained, however, the song ending in a funereal chorus – perhaps the 20 pretty girls who will carry his 20 buckets of tears as he turns away from the beckoning of his desires. Art and the imagination are the preeminent tools in Cave’s evocations of the sacred. As with Blake, it is the shrivelling censors and prohibitors who shrink the image of God. In the song ‘God Is in the House’,30 a hymn-like parody of American fundamentalist imagination sung by Cave with a flickering Southern drawl, the singer is a small-town nay-sayer who wants to tidy up the world of its crime and violence and alterity: For God is in the house God is in the house God is in the house And no one’s left in doubt God is in the house Homos roaming the streets in packs Queer bashers with tyre-jacks Lesbian counter-attacks That stuff is for the big cities Our town is very pretty We have a pretty little square We have a woman for a mayor Our policy is firm but fair Now that God is in the house God is in the house God is in the house Any day now He’ll come out God is in the house Well-meaning little therapists Goose-stepping twelve-stepping Teetotalitarianists The tipsy, the reeling and the drop down pissed We got no time for that stuff here Zero crime and no fear And we’ve bred all our kittens white So that you can see them in the night And at night we’re on our knees As quiet as a mouse Since the word got out 30 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘God Is in the House’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave From the North down to the South For no-one’s left in doubt There’s no fear about If we all hold hands and very quietly shout Hallelujah God is in the house God is in the house Oh I wish He would come out God is in the house

As with so many Cave songs, the lyrics together with his performance of the parody lead us in several directions. The small-town religious folk are satirised, their imagination so tiny and legalistic that they shrink to the size of mice, timidly singing up a god of zero crime, white kittens, no fear, no doubt. In fact they have created a toy god, just as rigid and tiny as they are. This seems to be the purport of the words. But the performance, with its sweet, slow rhythms, with their hint of a choir on the chorus, is moving. What is it we are moved by? It seems that at the point of highest political mockery there is pity and understanding even for the timid believers who act out of fear of an abject, violent world. All those ‘well-meaning little therapists / goose-stepping twelve-stepping Teetotalitarianists’ are, like Cave, dreaming of a better world. Their failure, it seems, is that they will not let God out of the house. Boxed-in, tamed, homogenised and purified, their god presides over a quaking congregation. Outside – ‘Homos roaming the streets in packs / Queer bashers with tyre-jacks / Lesbian counter-attacks’ – is no place for their god. But that very world is the one Cave inhabits. That world of abjection and violence, of elusive erotic possibilities, of loved and degraded flesh – ‘The tipsy, the reeling and the drop down pissed’ – bodies forth the sacred. Dreaming of another place of mercy and justice beyond the fleshed world sometimes leads Cave to separate the sacred from the profane. However, his complex poetic theology also reaches for a vision of sacred and profane, flesh and spirit, as already everywhere in this world. As we saw in ‘There Is a Kingdom’, and in so many of his lyrics, Cave is an artist impelled equally by darkness and light: ‘Just like a bird that sings up the sun / In a dawn so very dark’.31 It is artists who are capable of not only singing up the sun, but doing it rapt in the mantle of darkness. Redemption is imagined by Cave, but rarely without the accompanying shadows of uncertainty. However, in the blackness of Cave’s imagined world – its violence and bloodletting, its despised and yearning denizens, its often tragic eroticism – his characters are not ‘swallowed up’, finally. They emerge – stagger forward, wander sadly to your door, insist on telling you their tale of loss or threat, seduce you with their longing – clothed in both flesh and spirit.

31 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There Is a Kingdom’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

Fleshed Sacred: The Carnal Theologies of Nick Cave


Bibliography All the Lyrics [Online], available at, accessed 17 Aug 2007. Berry, Phillippa and Andrew Wernick (eds), Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion (London; New York: Routledge, 1992). Blake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) (London: Dent, 1927). ——, ‘Milton: And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times’ (1804), in The Portable Blake, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York: The Viking Press, 1971). Cave, Nick, ‘Introduction to Mark’, The Pocket Canons Bible Series (London: Canongate Books, 1998). ——, The Proposition, film script excerpt in Rouge 7 (2005) [Online], available at, accessed 25 Aug 2007. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds, Tender Prey, CD (Mute Records, 1988). ——, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). ——, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). ——, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Coyle, J. Kevin, The Manichean Debate (New York: New City Press, 2006). Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. W.R. Trask (Paris: Harvest/HBJ Publishers, 1957). Gill, Jerry H., ‘Faith in Learning: Integrative Education and Incarnational Theology’, Christian Century, 17 (1979): 1009–18. Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977 [1972]). ——, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987). Hillcoat, John, dir., The Proposition (SureFire Film 3 Production, 2005). Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Perlmutter, Dawn, ‘The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from Art to Murder’, Anthropoetics, 5.2 (1999–2000): 1–20. Robbins, Tim, dir., Dead Man Walking (Gramercy Films, 1995). Sarig, Roni, Review of The Boatman’s Call [Online], available at http://www., accessed 28 Aug 2007.

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Chapter 12

The Moose and Nick Cave: Melancholy, Creativity and Love Songs Tanya Dalziell

In his introduction to the slim volume of The Gospel According to Mark, Nick Cave writes of a narrative that ‘aches with the melancholy of absence’. Mark, Cave argues, is characterised by a certain rawness of expression whose effect on the reader is not unlike that of the disciples repeatedly bewildered before Christ’s parables, ‘astonished out of measure’. Taking its cue from this passing observation, the chapter proposes to address love, creativity and melancholy in selected Cave works, turning attention to how these texts are aware of a need to call forth other kinds of ‘measures’ for such idea(l)s in contemporary lyrical and musical form. The purpose of the chapter is not to suggest that the work of Cave, and its reception, somehow parallels that of Mark. Nor is it to presuppose that Cave’s writings neatly cohere around these themes singled out for consideration: they certainly do not. As such, the selections are limited and directed towards the tracing of a few lines of thought rather than making sweeping claims about Cave’s expanding oeuvre that is itself diverse in genre, form and theme. Further still, the chapter’s intent is not to chart melancholy, particularly, in the evaluative, rhetorical terms some critics have utilised to lament what they see as Cave’s ‘sad demise’, that is, his supposed privileging of lyric over music that apparently stems from an entrance into ‘the world of ego-psychology, concerned with personal expression rather than the art form’, resulting in the ‘muting [of] the Bad Seeds’. Instead, this chapter is interested in the interaction between music and lyric, and suggests, in contrast to an impression that Cave’s lyrics are unbridled outpourings of violent logorrhea and murderous prolixity, that many of Cave’s texts, especially the love songs which are of interest here, are baffled before language and its limitations as they confront the problem of sincerity, of how to speak all over again what has been written or sung or seen about love ad infinitum. This focus may seem counter-intuitive, especially given Cave’s stated attraction to Mark’s ‘compulsive Nick Cave, ‘Introduction’, The Gospel According to Mark, Authorised King James Version (Melbourne, 1998), p. ix.  Mark 10.26.  Emma McEvoy, ‘“Now, who will be the witness/When you’re all too healed to see?” The Sad Demise of Nick Cave’, Gothic Studies, 9.1 (2007): 86, 87. Alas, there is no hint here at an attempted pun on the band’s record label, Mute Records. 

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


narrative intensity … piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended on it’. And yet, Cave also writes of Mark of how ‘all the outpourings of His [Christ’s] brilliant, jewel-like imagination are in turns misunderstood, rebuffed, ignored, mocked, vilified and would eventually be the death of Him’. Language is no guarantor of understanding, communication and humanity; if anything, it leads to ‘aloneness’ and ‘isolation’, in short, a profound, if illuminated and inspired, melancholy, which is the subject of this chapter. But first: the moose. From November 2007 to April 2008, an exhibition on Nick Cave was held at The Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Items on show included notebooks, photographs, sketches, and paintings, a number of which were selected and loaned by Cave, and many were boxed in transparent plastic cases, framed, kept at arm’s length and consequently accorded an auratic quality that Walter Benjamin (erroneously) felt sure would disappear in our age of mechanical reproduction. The display also generated satellite events including question-andanswer sessions with the subject of the exhibition, curator talks, film screenings and hosted forums: these occasions highlighted multiple aspects of Cave’s diverse career as well as pointed, explicitly or otherwise, to the shifting meanings of ‘Nick Cave’. Perhaps as a symptom of the retrospective genre around which the exhibition turns, resting as it does to a point on the logic of the bildungsroman, Cave ‘today’, older, wiser, chastened and moustached (all, except the latter, according with recognisable bildungsroman conventions), is made over as both a proper subject of retrospection via this public introspection and the anchor and authentic sum of such diverse moments. It would seem that even as Cave works, most famously, in a medium shaped by technological apparatuses that do things with the human voice – amplify it, disarrange it, disengage it from an idea of a ‘source’, promising to undercut any claim of pre-eminence that might be made for it by treating it as one sound among many – there is nevertheless a certain nostalgia and desire to attach to it a series of material presences. Or, conceivably it is the foregrounding in the mix of Cave’s styled voice – a voice calling from the end of the world – particularly in the Bad Seeds, coupled with Cave’s songwriter occupation and a cultural emphasis on the importance of the lyric in popular music for meaning-making, that invites this sort of singular spotlighting. Accompanying the exhibition is the obligatory catalogue, a handsome, hardbacked publication that reproduces hand-written lyrics, portraits, objects, a selection 

Cave, ‘Introduction’, p. ix. Ibid.  Ibid., pp. x, xi. For reasons that will become clear, this chapter deliberately sidesteps a Freudian-inspired diagnostic model, which posits melancholia as a psychic (mal)formation wherein the self disavows loss and, as a consequence, suffers profound dejection. The interest is not in ‘diagnosing’ the songs, or indeed Cave, but rather in considering how melancholy is performed in the love songs.  Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London, 1999), pp. 211–44. 

The Moose and Nick Cave


of books from Cave’s personal library and other miscellany. And interspersed among these pages of the catalogue is a curious series of half-page pink sheets. These rosy papers, marked by typescript but not numbered in the manner of the other pages, draw the eye and call to mind an errata sheet, detailing errors in the already-produced book. In this context, though, these pink slips do not so much correct as comment on the text of which they are both part and apart. Ostensibly the words of Cave (the quotation marks that surround the typed text afford this impression), the pink slips are not quite explanatory footnotes or captions: the placement of a slip relating ‘The Story of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Bust’ some pages prior to the image of the relevant sculpture, for instance, subtly unsettles any presumption of unqualified access to, and knowledge over, the objects (and their owner) that the display and the catalogue might encourage. These slips do also assume for themselves, however, a certain power of disclosure that plays on the twinned conceits of celebrity, or at the very least showmanship, and creativity that the catalogue and exhibition also entertain, namely that through these means an audience ‘will attempt to dig beneath that surface to discover the fierce genie that drives Nick’s imagination’ and that ‘we all launch futile attempts to understand and describe Cave’s creative forces’. At once revelatory and obfuscatory, peripheral and fundamental, these pink slips pose as truthful stories that feed and thwart the desires – about authenticity, about creativity – the audience is positioned to hold. Yet, creativity and authenticity are themselves the very subjects of many of the slips, particularly the one announcing ‘The Story of the Baboons, the Hyenas and the Moose’.10 In this half-page, Cave (presumably) recalls the black dog and white mice of Churchill and Kafka’s musings on melancholy respectively, and a long history of attributing to animals human traits and anxieties.11 He does so to present his own hierarchical model of ‘not exactly depression’ but something more approximating creative arrest. ‘The Baboons’ are manageable, Cave reassures us, and ‘the Hyenas’, while irritating with their ‘inane, unhelpful and super-critical remarks’, nevertheless can be overcome. It is ‘the Moose’, ‘the one you don’t want to mess with’, who sits atop, or in the deepest recesses, of this chain of creative frustration if not despair. James Fox, ‘Foreword’, in Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne, 2007), p. 4.  Janine Barrand, ‘Preface’, in Barrand and Fox, Nick Cave Stories, p. 6. 10 Nick Cave, ‘The Story of the Baboons, the Hyenas and the Moose’, in Barrand and Fox, Nick Cave Stories, insert between pp. 82–3. 11 The reverse is also true, as the Grinderman clip to the song ‘No Pussy Blues’ attests. National Geographic-style documentary shots of copulating animals ‘in the wild’ are juxtaposed frenetically in this video with heterosexual couples caught up in the maelstrom of desire that seems to be an end in itself, transcending and underpinning animal and human worlds alike, indeed blurring such distinction, and at whose centre Cave stands (mockingly) alone. Grinderman, ‘No Pussy Blues’, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


As Cave relates it, the Moose is not a frequent visitor to the psyche but when it does turn up, there is nothing to do but to gather the children – ‘hush, now, boys, daddy’s got the Moose …’ – and leave Cave to his inner moose. It is difficult to write of Cave in this way without falling about laughing, all too aware, all too uncertain, that the joke is on the reader of the exhibition catalogue who takes up the publication’s call or attempt to disclose ‘the real Cave’. Here, Cave’s inner demons sport ‘ridiculous antlers’.12 And in a comic take on the Gothic genre with which Cave has been frequently (if tiresomely and thoughtlessly) associated in the popular press, the Moose is not concealed beneath a trapdoor, hidden behind a false panel or dwelling in the dusty attic of the unconscious mind, but rather finds itself ‘trapped in a stairwell’. Such cartoonish good humour notwithstanding, there is something about the Moose that is compellingly serious. Whereas the Baboons and the Hyenas are accorded the ability, as it were, to make ‘remarks’ that can then be ‘vanquished’, the Moose, ensnared in a space intended to facilitate movement, is denied linguistic capacity and the reply it presupposes. Or, more to the point, ‘his low hopeless bellowing reverberating around the house’ suggests the limits of language to convey such unlocatable, untranslatable anguish, with sound its nearest approximation and silence – measured by the ellipses ‘concluding’ the story – its only answer. If the Moose emerges from the stairwell as an unlikely but suggestive starting point for thinking about melancholy, creativity and its musical, noisy estimation in Cave’s work, then there is another complementary if similarly obscure entry into this discussion that is also worth mentioning briefly. By way of explanation of the hold The Gospel According to Mark has for him, Cave references not by name Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite painting The Light of the World, which was completed in 1853 and is preoccupied itself with sudden enlightenment.13 Cave writes that it is this painting of Christ knocking on a door, or rather the light that emanates from and around the Christ-figure, ‘dim and buttery … a dim light, a sad light, but light enough’, that reminds him of the experience of being ‘swept up’ by Mark, and it might be said to best capture the ‘melancholy of absence’ Cave would go on to identify in the narrative of the gospel. What Cave does not mention in his introductory remarks, however, and admittedly there is no reason that he would, is this picture’s pendant, The Awakening Conscience. The Light of the World and The Awakening Conscience were shown together at the Royal Academy Exhibition They also find outer manifestations in the song ‘Oh My Lord’, from the album No More Shall We Part. In this song, the persona takes a walk, reflects with some solemnity and foreboding on the precariousness of successful life, love and inspiration, decides to have a haircut and is confronted by ‘A guy wearing plastic antlers / [who] Presses his bum against the glass’ of the salon. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Oh My Lord’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 13 George P. Landow, ‘Shadows Cast by The Light of the World: William Holman Hunt’s Religious Paintings, 1893–1905’, The Art Bulletin, 65.3 (1983): 471–84. 12

The Moose and Nick Cave


of 1854 to mixed reviews, with the latter depicting visually and thematically in its realism and symbolic framing two central figures: a young unwedded woman seemingly made suddenly aware of her compromising predicament, and a roguish piano-playing man from whose lap she is half-rising.14 One contextual conjecture is that it is an unheard rap at an unseen door that prompts this moment of illumination. What is more certain, though, is the sheet music of Thomas Moore’s ballad ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ set to music by Sir John Stevenson that rests on the piano, of which the young man is presumably the interpreter-player-singer, and which the composer has explicitly marked ‘with melancholy expression’.15 It might be said that as far as this particular ballad mourns lost boyhood, it is hardly an obvious song of seduction.16 Nor is the effect of the telling of such loss on par with the (unnamed) loss and sorrow that Elisa Day, in breathless, beyond-the-grave naïveté, agrees to exchange for the ‘sure embrace’ of her murderous suitor in Cave’s ballad ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’,17 but perhaps both ballads do end up endorsing a model of chaste femininity, with social and spiritual demise facing the mid-nineteenth-century woman in Hunt’s painting, and a physical death drawn as the fate of Elisa Day. These observations aside, Hunt’s painting thematises, and even privileges, the loss of melancholic sound itself. The woman appears abruptly deaf to the music her lover plays with a certain flippancy and detachment as he reclines carelessly on a curved, highbacked seat by the piano. By contrast, the woman is literally moved – she is caught in a photographic-like freeze-frame, the flash of illumination, it might be supposed – by something she has heard; or, she comes to realise that the losses lamented in the ballad, ‘The smiles, the tears, / Of boyhood’s years’, are not the losses of innocence she specifically faces as a lower-class Victorian woman.18 It is the visual 14 There is much to be said about this intriguing painting, its context of production and its reception. For informed engagements, see Linda Nochlin, ‘Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman’, The Art Bulletin, 60.1 (1978): 139–53, and Kate Flint, ‘Reading The Awakening Conscience Rightly’, in Marcia Pointon (ed.), Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed (Manchester, 1989), pp. 45–65. 15 See Julia Gella O’Connell, ‘Of Music, Magdalenes and Metanoia in The Awakening Conscience’, Journal of Musicological Research, 24 (2005): 123–43. 16 The gentleman of the painting might have had more luck if he were belting out a more up-beat, guitar-driven Bad Seeds B-side such as ‘Babe, I Got You Bad’, with Mick Harvey’s organ-playing towards the end of this song moving in and out of the layered cacophony of fractured Cave vocals to a point of collapse – exhausted – from the idea of desire: the persona of the song has got his babe ‘bad’, as is repeatedly told in the refrain that is also the song’s title, because, he has not ‘got’ her at all. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Babe, I Got You Bad’, (Are You) the One That I’ve Been Waiting For?, CD single (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 17 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 18 Thomas Moore, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore: A New Edition (Boston, MA, 1857), p. 351.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


realm, rather than the music, that captures her inner conversion, but it is musical melancholy expression – however and whatever that might mean19 – which carries the capacity in this instance to awaken reflection, and arguably dampen female sexual desire, in noiseless image. The concern here to detail this painting and to refer to the otherwise apocryphal story of the Moose is not to forward or indeed force a tenuous link between Hunt’s canvas, humorous self-narrativising and Cave’s musical works any more than it might be said that the appearance of Robert Burton’s encyclopaedic compendium on Renaissance sadness, The Anatomy of Melancholy, in Cave’s pile of favoured books in the recent exhibition is clear evidence for or key to an understanding of melancholy in the songs and other writings. If anything, a glance at Burton’s multi-volume work suggests the changeability of melancholia. In the poem ‘The Authors [sic] Abstract of Melancholy’, which first appears in the third edition of the Anatomy, Burton presents imaginings of melancholy that are measured against ‘griefes’ and ‘joyes’, thus suggesting that melancholy itself may be both painful and pleasant, variously ‘sweet’, ‘sad’, ‘soure’, ‘damn’d’, ‘harsh’, ‘fierce’ and ‘divine’,20 singling out love as the melancholic ‘torment’ par excellence. Rather, these admittedly piece-meal references to Hunt and the Moose, coupled now with Burton’s poetic efforts at extensive cataloguing, point implicitly to the ways in which melancholy has been conceived of to exhaust and expose the limits of language, and it is this enduring idea that Cave’s work entertains, especially (but not only) in the face of love and loss. Cave has himself, of course, written on love in the form of the love song, and in particular on the love songs he has composed and performed, the ones he nominates his ‘gloomy, violent, dark-eyed children’.21 In the context of this discussion, whose title proposes a revelation of the love song’s secret life, Cave includes an autobiographical element; that his artistic efforts seem to him now to centre ‘on almost palpable sense of loss which laid claim to [his] life’, namely the death of his father when Cave was a young man. It might not be immediately apparent why this undeniably traumatic event should be made mention of in the context of writing, singing and reading love songs in particular, were it not for Cave suggesting that writing, broadly conceived, was the ‘way I learned to 19

The interrelations (or lack thereof) between music and emotion­ – if the emotion attributed to music is a human projection or if, indeed, music itself has some kind of unique emotional expression – is much debated in musical theory. The concern here is not to settle the discussion but rather to recognise its complexity. For a short overview of some of these positions, see David Carr, ‘Music, Meaning and Emotion’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62.3 (2004): 225–34. 20 Robert Burton, ‘The Authors Abstract of Melancholy’, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, eds Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, Rhonda L. Blair (5 vols, Oxford, 1989), vol. 1, pp. lxix–lxxi. 21 Nick Cave, The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word, CD (King Mob, 2000 [1998]).

The Moose and Nick Cave


fill this hole’. For Cave, love songs in their various guises are largely about the overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss the absence of a beloved makes plain, and their very stuff of existence – language – might be ‘a salve to longing’ and an appeal to Godly grace. To support his point, Cave draws on an artistic vocabulary of sorrow – duende (as elaborated upon by Federico Garcia Lorca) and saudade – two terms from the Iberian peninsula and untranslatable ‘directly’ into English that gesture towards the inability of language to express inexpressible sadness and longing respectively. The quote Cave derives from Lorca’s essay, ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’, to hint at the mysterious, creative power of duende ‘that everyone senses and no philosopher can explain’ is one Lorca himself attributes to Manuel Torres, the singer of cante jondo, and the German philosopher Goethe.22 And it is the case that the ‘everyone’ referred to is refined in the context of Lorca’s aesthetic and political argument to the people of Spain, whose culture he understands positively to be more open to death than those of other European nations, and more specifically still, to those of the region of Andalucia. Similarly, but also very differently, saudade is oftentimes underpinned by an essentialist idea of ‘blood culture’, to use Lorca’s words, insofar as it is imagined to be a particularly Portuguese state of intense nostalgic being for that which does not and probably cannot exist either in the past or the future. Such nitpicking notwithstanding – the general spirit of the overview is certainly understood – what is interesting is that Cave in his essay on the love song sets these words and all that they attempt to, or cannot, mean against what he calls ‘contemporary rock music’, which he represents in terms that Theodor Adorno, professionally suspicious of popular culture, would have approved of: ‘the compulsive modernity of the music industry’.23 There is no room for sadness, with a few notable exceptions, in this made-to-order industry, with its implications of hits and misses churned out by means of predictable cliché and to a monotonous, soul-deadening beat. This is a familiar encoding of the ‘pop music business’ and it is one that Cave recycles here to his advantage. It not only positions his reading or indeed revealing of the ‘secret’ of Kylie Minogue’s performance of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman penned song ‘Better the Devil You Know’ – ‘one of pop’s most violent and distressing love lyrics’24 – to be all the more biting, insightful and hilariously spot-on. It also permits Cave to return to a theory of melancholy and creativity that has had a long, long history stretching at least to Aristotle in marking out and valuing art and artists. In another context, during an interview on a mid-1990s Australian comedy show (as the Fates with their exquisitely refined or perverse sense of the preposterous would have it), Cave has spoken candidly about the need of sadness for creativity. In response to a comment by one half of the comedy duo 22 Federico García Lorca, ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’, In Search of Duende, trans. Christopher Maurer (New York, 1998), p. 49. 23 Cave, The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word. 24 Ibid.

Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave


Roy and HG – whose better known roles as humorous sports commentators make this encounter all the more absurd(ist) – that Cave’s work is persistently marked by disappointment, disenchantment and disillusionment, Cave replies straight-faced and with a sincerity that is difficult to doubt: ‘society actually has a problem with sadness. They don’t like sadness. They try to cure sadness. They have therapy to cure sadness, and I actually don’t think that sadness is necessarily a bad thing, I think it something that it is an essential part of our character, especially an artistic character’.25 Burton said something similar centuries earlier: ‘Melancholy … is the Character of Mortalitie’.26 And John Keats, whose first stanza of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ arguably echoes down the years with Burton’s meditations and who Cave quotes liberally, ironically, in his own songs, imagined the ‘sovran shrine’ of melancholy to be not only ‘in the very temple of Delight’ but in and of poetry itself.27 The accusation Cave levels at late-twentieth-century ‘society’, namely that it is directed at driving out sadness, is refined in the Love Song lecture-essay to ‘the world of modern pop music’, bereft of imagination. If Cave in this lecture-essay pits the poets against the music industry to privilege a particular model of artistic endeavour with which he unashamedly aligns himself, the songs suggest that things are a little messier than such a binary would have us believe. After all, as the persona states with a deliberate grammatical awkwardness to an unknown other in ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ from the album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004): ‘You weren’t much of a muse, but then I weren’t much of a poet’.28 This ‘confession’ follows stanzas that both turn on the listings of male creative labours and failures – ‘Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital / And Gaugin, he buggered, off, man, and went all tropical / While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull / And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St. Vincent’s hospital’ – and clearly set out to torture the poetic conventions of rhyme and metre. As such, it could be said that the persona’s wry disclaimer about not being much of a poet is a call to attend to its own knowing status as a song lyric, and a song lyric all too aware of pop cliché at that. True, the line between poetry and song lyric is possibly and desirably illdefined: the recent publication in book form of Cave’s The Complete Lyrics 1978– 2007 subjects the lyrics to the full poetry treatment, with indexes of both titles and first lines, as publishers are in the habit of producing for collections of poems, and no reference at all is given to music.29 Yet, ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ Roy and HG, ‘Interview with Nick Cave’, Planet Norwich (United Kingdom, Channel 4), screened 8 October 1998. 26 Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 136. 27 John Keats ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1819), The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott (London, 1970), p. 541. 28 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 29 Nick Cave, The Complete Lyrics 1978–2007 (London, 2007). 25

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appears on a double album (music its raison d’être) that lyrically and formally thematises sounds and their making (or not). Orpheus’ lyre, for instance, is an incidental backyard woodwork project: ‘a lump of wood, a piece of wire / And a little pot of glue’.30 And it is interesting to note that the bells do not in fact ring in the song ‘Let the Bells Ring’.31 This silence perhaps suggests that the Classical notion of ‘the music of the spheres’ – the presence of a wider transcendental presence or process analogous to musical shape that the bells’ silences in this song hint at – requires another kind of hearing of the sort the awakening woman in Hunt’s painting just might exercise. The admission, then, about not being much of a poet but rather a song lyric is one to consider further in the context of at least two other aspects of the song and album in which this line is sung. The opening stanza of ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ announces what could be thought of as the benevolent idea of the music of nature that was central to the work of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth: ‘The wintergreen, the juniper / The cornflower and the chicory / All the words you said to me / Still vibrating in the air’. For the Wordsworth of ‘Tintern Abbey’, the ‘sad music of humanity’ is chastened by the close contemplation of nature that the poet, by means of imagination, transforms into ‘sweet sounds and harmonies’.32 Following, though, this first stanza of Cave’s song, ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ breaks into a high-hat hitting, piano-tinkling female-voice-dominated gospel-like choir proclaiming the passing (by) of this world, and presumably looking ahead to the next. The beautiful world is ‘passing’ perhaps because the world of the English countryside seems so different to the world of the song and the album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. It is a world of technologically mediated visual culture that globally flattens out time and space so that the eponymous persona of the song ‘Nature Boy’ can witness on television ‘some ordinary slaughter / I saw some routine atrocity’;33 it is a world wherein hearts do not ‘leap up’34 in vital spontaneity as they do in Wordsworth’s poetry, but rather, as in ‘Abattoir Blues’, are subjected to the vocabulary of fluctuating financial markets: ‘My heart it tumbled like the

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 31 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Let the Bells Ring’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 32 William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798), Selected Poems, ed. Nicholas Roe (London, 1992), pp. 79, 80. 33 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Nature Boy’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 34 William Wordsworth, ‘My Heart Leaps up When I Behold’ (1802), Selected Poems, ed. Nicholas Roe (London, 1992), p. 172. 30


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

stock exchange’.35 Further, the world of juniper and chicory is also ‘passing by’, is ‘still vibrating in the air’,36 quoted, but not acquired wholesale, because its form is not that of a poem reflecting in writing on its own stillness and quietness, and offering images of nature’s abundance as a kind of compensation for its silence. Rather, it is quite obviously a song, and the gospel phrasing, with its repetition and antiphonal structure (rooted in African-American musical form) directs Cave’s voice – unusually for a Bad Seeds number – to merge at times with the choir and then emerge again. As such, the gospel form circumvents the eye and underscores the oral, sonic quality of the song to which the persona, the ‘would-be’ poet, is firstly deaf: ‘Well, me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears’.37 This is so even as, or because, the choir punctuates the stanza (of which the previous quotation is the first line) at increasingly regular intervals, building to a noisy crescendo that then ‘awakens’ the persona to the music about him. This illumination prompts him to call out repeatedly and in the midst of the choir-chorus ‘Send that stuff on down to me’ so that the ‘me’ of the voice becomes diffuse, more a shared event in time than a certain, singular point of origin.38 Even in the midst of one of the more musically upbeat Bad Seeds songs, at least in terms of tempo, there is a certain note of melancholy. More precisely: just as this is a song about singing on an album of music about music, the line that has the persona ‘lying on my bed with nothing in my head’39 is not so much melancholic – the ‘high energy’ gospel feel of the music usefully misfits the image here of sorrowful stasis – as about the lyrical performance of creative melancholy. Or, to put this point another way: Cave, in ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’ lecture-essay, tells that the Love Song, broadly conceived to embrace ‘the love of God, or romantic erotic love’, sometimes both simultaneously, ‘is the noise of sorrow itself’ and details why this is so.40 Many of his songs, though, push further at these ideas, grappling with how they might be so. Cave, it must be said, has argued that language, particularly the language of the Love Song as he conceives of it, fills ‘the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine’.41 Cave’s love songs (if such bold generalisations can be made across a diverse body of work) do not simply ‘fill’ but perform this filling (in) of the silence, which the language of love itself creates. And the sense of melancholy lies, in part, in the knowledge that this

35 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Abattoir Blues’, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 36 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 37 Ibid. 38 Ibid. 39 Ibid. 40 Cave, The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word. 41 Ibid.

The Moose and Nick Cave


silence exists, and will continue to exist, despite, or as a consequence of, the love song’s promised intimacy. Love, in Cave’s love songs, is very often something to endure rather than enjoy. It is something intense, insane; something violent, not only physically but very often so – ‘She’s like a dog you have to kick her / … Run your rusty cutlass through me’;42 something that is very often solipsistic, narcissistic – ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Like I love you?’;43 something that becomes or is the subject of the song rather than any beloved per se. Wives, girls with green gloves and quite a few Marys, among other ‘loves’, ‘babes’ and ‘honeys’ make appearances in some of the songs not as addressees, in the spirit of the call-and-response exchange of the gospel form, for example, but as the address of the love song to itself. ‘The Sweetest Embrace’,44 the penultimate song on Barry Adamson’s album Oedipus Schmoedipus (1996) – which opens with the hip-thrusting track featuring Jarvis Cocker panting over a gospel backing vocal about not wanting to be left alone (the sentiment is understandable) in a double bed that smells of moist towels and asthma puffers45 – crashes, or creeps in, on the knowing B-grade film soundtrack feel of the album. In distinct contrast to the 1970s-esque, disco wah-wah guitar that opens the album and marks the concluding reprise into which ‘The Sweetest Embrace’ fades, a doleful keyboard riff reminiscent of a broken musical jewellery box begins the Adamson/Cave song before the opening lines: ‘Our time is done, my love / We’ve laid it all to waste / One thousand moonlit kisses / Can’t sweeten this bitter taste’. In case the point was missed, that the popular vocabulary of the love song is sorely wanting, the second stanza begins ‘To think we can find happiness / Hidden in a kiss’, with Cave delivering the third syllable of the word ‘happiness’ as a barely-disguised hiss and leaving little doubt that this song is addressing not so much ‘my love’ to whom the lines ‘I just don’t want you no more / And that’s the sweetest embrace of all’ are ostensibly directed, but rather the sonic and lyrical conventions of the popular love song itself. This suggestion might go some way to thinking more about the song, ‘West Country Girl’ and the curious figure of the cat that appears in its last lines: ‘Well, who could ask for much more than that? / A West Country girl with a big fat cat? / That looks into her eyes of green / And meows, “He loves you,” then meows

The Birthday Party, ‘Kiss Me Black’, Junkyard, LP (Missing Link, 1982). Lyrics by Nick Cave and Anita Lane, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 43 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Do You Love Me?’ Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 44 Barry Adamson and Nick Cave, ‘The Sweetest Embrace’, Oedipus Schmoedipus, LP (Mute Records, 1996). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 45 Barry Adamson and Jarvis Cocker, ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Pelvis’, Oedipus Schmoedipus, LP (Mute Records, 1996). 42


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

again’.46 In a song that relates ‘birds sing[ing] bass’ in its first lines, it should probably come as little surprise to find the closing line featuring a cat that ‘meows, “He loves you,” and then meows again’. It is this anthropomorphism, however, that could produce the listeners the persona of ‘Oh My Lord’ speaks of: those who ‘claimed that I had lost the plot / Kept saying that I was not / The man I used to be’.47 (These listeners, with a Cave back-catalogue for memory, might recall a Cave persona more likely to put such ‘little animals … in a big white sack’ than to invite them to lie at the feet of a song.48) But if Cave’s love songs do, to any degree, perform the ‘filling (in)’ of silence, then the cat’s line and the line about the cat – they are the one and the same, but also different – make perfect sense. Here the work on love by the philosopher, Roland Barthes, is useful.49 Like Cave, Barthes has a studied interest in love, and he notes with some despair how loves stories (rather than love, the distinction is important) abound in popular culture, with the result that love and lovers are domesticated and tamed, and the radical solitude and sorrow love might well be founded upon is overlooked. For Barthes, the phrase ‘I-love-you’, the one at the heart of the love story and the love song, is exemplary of this sadness because it signals the impossibility of the intimacy it promises. At first glance, ‘I-love-you’, the most banal and most desired of phrases, seems to unite the subject and the object. But the dashes, filling graphically the spaces between ‘the you’ and ‘the I’, also denote the anxious and painful gaps between the subject and the object that the language of love creates. In saying seemingly the most intimate of phrases – ‘I-love-you’ – insurmountable distance, solitude and melancholy is conjured. So, it is the cat in ‘West Country Girl’ that is accorded the unlikely role of ‘saying’ what is not said, what perhaps cannot be said, between the persona and the ‘West Country girl’. (Contrast these non-words to those the persona of the song ‘Love Letter’ delivers in a decidedly despairing tone: ‘A handful of hopeful words / I love her and I always will’.50) Moreover, the song seems aware that the cat’s role in this non-exchange is downright strange if not impossible: there is a certain linguistic and imaginative contortion required to accept at face value that the cat might actually meow ‘he loves you’. And this awareness is foregrounded by means of the song’s violin sequencing. The violin, firstly played with a bow by Warren Ellis in the musical introduction to the song, is brought back into the song at the 46 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘West Country Girl’, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 47 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Oh My Lord’. Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 48 The Birthday Party, ‘A Dead Song’, Prayers on Fire, LP (4AD, 1981). Lyrics by Nick Cave and Anita Lane, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd. 49 Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London, 2002). 50 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Love Letter’, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). Lyrics by Nick Cave, reprinted by permission of Mute Song Ltd.

The Moose and Nick Cave


end of the word ‘kissed’ in the fifth line – ‘Her widow’s peak, her lips I’ve kissed’ – and one can imagine the instrument’s notes here, feline-like, brushing against the lyrical line. The violin music does not return in this manner (the instrument is rather plucked throughout the song) until the end, with the song’s persona crooning ‘then meows again’. At this point, and as a consequence of the line phrasing segueing into the violin arrangement, the violin music seems to enact the ‘meow again’, in place of the previous lyric that interprets the first cat noise as ‘he loves you’. It does so, however, in a way that eschews the perceptibly rudimentary onomatopoeia of the lyrical ‘meow’ that precedes it and exceeds the seeming directive of the lyrical ‘meow again’ by expanding musically beyond its brief, filling in (for) the wordless melancholic love song even if, or because, the linguistic ‘meaning’ of the sequence is unknowable. There is no attempt to ‘translate’ the violin music into language – in the manner of the cat’s first meow being said to approximate ‘he loves you’ – and it is the violin’s singular, unaccompanied final note, rather than the lyric, that ends the song. It is not that the melancholic quality of the Cave love song in this instance is filled ‘over’ musically. Rather, it is its somewhat indefinable yet nevertheless palpable and not-so-secret presence that the love song necessarily, knowingly creates in the interplay between words and sound because of the clichés and loneliness of the love lyric the cat pointedly, oddly, mediates. Admittedly, such an interest in a cat together with a moose, a violin, a centuryand-a-half-old painting, a gospel, a tome on Elizabethan psychology and a couple of Romantic poets offers a somewhat obscure beginning for thinking about melancholy, creativity and Cave’s love songs. Nevertheless, it does suggest a need to approach Cave and his works in ways that extend beyond the ‘Cave persona’ itself, which implies a singular purpose, source and execution for the songs. The possibilities and limitations of such a figuring of the creative self, and its attendant creative works, are apparent in the love songs as they grapple, oftentimes goodhumouredly and with an ear to its melancholic note, with the language available to sing of love.


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Bibliography Adamson, Barry, Oedipus Schmoedipus, LP (Mute Records, 1996). Barrand, Janine, ‘Preface’, in Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Barthes, Roland, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2002). Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999). The Birthday Party, Prayers on Fire, LP (4AD, 1981). ——, Junkyard, LP (Missing Link, 1982). Burton, Robert, The Anatomy of Melancholy, eds Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, Rhonda L. Blair (5 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). Carr, David, ‘Music, Meaning and Emotion’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62.3 (2004): 225–34. Cave, Nick. ‘Introduction’, in The Gospel According to Mark, Authorised King James Version, (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1998). ——, The Secret Life of the Love Song/The Flesh Made Word, CD (King Mob, 2000 [1998]). ——, The Complete Lyrics 1978–2007 (London: Penguin, 2007). ——, ‘The Story of the Baboons, the Hyenas and the Moose’, in Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories Told in Four Chapters: Featuring the Nick Cave Collection (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds, Let Love In, CD (Mute Records, 1994). ——, Murder Ballads, CD (Mute Records, 1996). ——, (Are You) the One That I’ve Been Waiting For?, CD single (Mute Records, 1997). ——, The Boatman’s Call, CD (Mute Records, 1997). ——, No More Shall We Part, CD (Mute Records, 2001). ——, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, CD (Mute Records, 2004). Flint, Kate, ‘Reading The Awakening Conscience Rightly’, in Marcia Pointon (ed.), Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989). Fox, James, ‘Foreword’, in Janine Barrand and James Fox, Nick Cave Stories (Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, 2007). García Lorca, Federico, In Search of Duende, trans. Christopher Maurer (New York: New Directions, 1998). Grinderman, Grinderman, CD (Mute Records, 2007). Keats, John, The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Longman, 1970). Landow, George P., ‘Shadows Cast by The Light of the World: William Holman Hunt’s Religious Paintings, 1893–1905’, The Art Bulletin, 65.3 (1983): 471– 84.

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McEvoy, Emma, ‘“Now, who will be the witness/When you’re all too healed to see?” The Sad Demise of Nick Cave’, Gothic Studies, 9.1 (2007): 79–88. Moore, Thomas, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore: A New Edition (Boston, MA: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1857). Nochlin, Linda, ‘Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman’, The Art Bulletin, 60.1 (1978): 139–53. O’Connell, Julia Gella, ‘Of Music, Magdalenes and Metanoia in The Awakening Conscience’, Journal of Musicological Research, 24 (2005): 123–43. Roy and HG, ‘Interview with Nick Cave’, Planet Norwich (United Kingdom, Channel 4), screened 8 October 1998. Wordsworth, William, Selected Poems, ed. Nicholas Roe (London: Penguin, 1992).

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abjection 57, 164, 168, 171, 176, 182, 183, 184 Aborigines 119 Abraham 15, 141 absence 3, 8, 18, 91, 102, 131, 168, 169, 170, 175, 187, 190, 193 absurdity 39, 49, 70, 71, 72, 78, 86, 87, 94, 127, 194 Adamson, Barry 197 Addams, Charles 22 addiction 84, 94 Adorno, Theodor 193 agape 143, 148 Alice Cooper 35, 37 alienation 134 allegories 23, 91 alternative culture 3, 72, 77 alternative music 65, 69, 76 ambiguity 71, 72, 75, 76, 77, 78, 181 ambivalence 76, 78, 92, 102, 167 America 15, 115, 117, 140, 164 American South 157, 164, 175, 183 Anatomy of Melancholy, The 192 And the Ass Saw the Angel (1990) 7, 48, 53, 97, 116, 175 and Elvis myth 153, 154, 155ff., 160, 162–3, 164 epilogue 99–100 and fragments 98, 99, 100–104, 105, 107 Gothic conventions of 97–8ff., 104, 106 house in 104–5 and narrative excess 97–8, 99, 102 narrative structure 98–100, 102, 106 objects in 100ff., 105, 107 plot 99 poetic form 102, 103 angels 106, 107, 114, 115, 167, 172, 176 anger 74, 143

animals 20, 24, 25, 97, 99, 100, 127, 163, 189, 198 antagonism 83, 84, 86, 94 anti-Westerns 117 apocalypse 16, 175 Appel, Greg 5 archetypes 84, 154 Puer Aeternus 156, 158–62ff. ARIA Hall of Fame 2 Arkley, Howard 3 art 19, 20, 25, 26, 33, 55, 57, 87, 91, 124, 144 and melancholy 189–92ff. and the sacred 171, 176, 178–9, 183, 184 and the unconscious 158 artifice 124, 154 artists 52, 84, 86, 91, 92, 184, 193 Arts Centre, Melbourne exhibition 188–9 catalogue 188–9, 190 Ashcroft, Bill et al. 49 audience 65, 66, 76, 77, 78, 91, 179, 189 closeness to 89 critique of 90 direct access to 123, 129, 131 expectations of 85, 86 interpretation of 90, 93 and ‘king’ 89, 90 and performer 83, 85–7, 88, 90, 94, 129ff., 134, 135 Australia 5, 6, 24, 26, 36, 38ff., 52, 66, 115 education 54, 56, 58, 59 humour 47–8, 55 landscape 119 and masculinity 71, 72 postcolonial writing 53, 54 pub rock scene 68–9, 72 see also Melbourne Australian cinema 109, 117, 118, 119 auteur 7


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

authenticity 83, 87, 125, 130, 189 author 98 authority 53, 163 autobiography 86, 107, 192 Awakening Conscience, The 190 baboon 123, 130, 131 back-to-basics approach 123 Bad Seeds, The 2, 7, 14, 15, 24, 33, 44, 49, 50, 55, 72, 73, 90, 109, 155, 189, 196 and Grinderman 123, 125–6, 132 bad son 158, 159, 165 Bakhtin, Mikhail 163–4 ballads 51, 191 Ballard, Dr Robert 18 banality 49, 86 Bargeld, Blixa 72, 112 Barthes, R. 198 basement 128, 130 Basement Tapes, The 126, 128n. Batman Forever 112 beast 21, 23, 105, 146, 155 beauty 54, 55, 57, 168, 169, 170 behaviour 68, 72 Beissel, Kim 5 beliefs 143, 147, 148, 172, 173 Benjamin, Walter 188 Berlin 42, 43, 113–14, 115 Bible 51, 53, 98, 99, 118, 120, 146, 147, 154, 174 see also New Testament; Old Testament bildungsroman 188 Bilton, Chris 7 birds 26, 56, 112, 198 Birmingham, John 50 birth 99, 155, 156, 160, 161 Birthday Party, The 6, 7, 32, 40–44, 45, 65, 66, 70ff., 74, 77, 83, 84ff., 90, 155 Black Crow King 7, 43, 89, 93, 154, 156, 157, 163 Blade Runner 19–20 Blake, William 51, 178, 182, 183 blasphemy 170 Blondie 37 blood 27, 53, 55, 97, 161, 162, 169, 170, 171, 175, 176ff., 189, 193

bloodletting 177, 178, 181 Boatman 171–2 body 66, 67, 68, 70, 71, 72, 75, 77, 78, 118, 161, 164, 179, 180 Bolan, Marc 35 Bollen, Jonathan 66–8, 75 Bonney, Simon 39, 70 Booth, Stanley 161 Borland, Polly 1 Botting, Fred 97 Bowie, David 33, 35, 38, 43, 132 Boys Next Door, The 3, 6, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37ff. Brabazon, Tara 69 Bragg, Melvyn 5 braggadocio 132 Braithwaite, E.K. 60 Brazil 157 Brel, Jacques 35 Brisbane 31, 34, 36, 37, 38, 42 Brit-punk 36, 38 Broadhurst, Susan 4, 74, 75 Brokenmouth, Robert 73 Bronte, Emily 50 brutality 17, 92, 100, 101, 104, 111, 120, 124, 125, 145, 176 Buddhism 13, 26 Burt, Jillian 5–6 Burton, Robert 192m 192 calamity 84 Calvert, Phill 3, 35, 42, 66, 70 camp 35, 124, 177 Campbell, Joseph 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 24 Captain Beefheart 34, 39 caricature 88, 113 carnal world 168, 169, 177 and sacredness 168 see also body; flesh carnival 53, 70, 113, 114, 163–5 cartoons 22, 23 Caruth, Cathy 144 Casey, Martin 123, 126 Cash, Johnny 3, 43, 44, 147 cat 197, 198, 199 catastrophe 84, 85 causality 98, 103, 104 Cave, Colin 39, 56, 57, 58–9, 61

Index Cave, Nick and archetypes 158–9 attitudes to 50, 91 awards 2–3 changing personas of 87–8 see also persona and cinema 110–11ff. as collector 107 composition methods 16, 21 development of 143, 149 discography 5 and Elvis myth 153, 154ff., 161 exhibition 188 as film actor 109, 111, 113, 115–16 film scripts 112, 115, 116, 117ff. and Grinderman 123, 126, 127, 131 images of 1, 2, 3, 89 influences on 43, 44, 119 life 4–5, 21, 22, 32ff., 55–6, 135, 192 and masculinity 75 and music 110, 112, 118 novel 7; see also And the Ass Saw the Angel (1990) and religion 139, 140, 142–3, 144, 145ff., 148, 150, 162, 167–8ff., 178, 184 screen persona 109, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116 soundtracks 112, 113, 115, 118 versatility of 2, 3 Cave, Nick, Albums: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus 23, 55, 59, 60, 119, 194, 195 Bad Seed, The 42, 43 Boatman’s Call, The 13, 20, 21, 148, 167, 171–5 Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (2008) 2, 14, 15, 26–7, 139, 149 Door, Door (1979) 40 Down in the Groove 148 First Born is Dead, The 91, 146, 154 From Her to Eternity (1984) 90, 91, 146, 154 Good Son, The (1990) 147, 154 Grinderman (2007) 2, 7, 16, 24, 85, 93, 123ff., 149; see also Grinderman project Henry’s Dream 147, 154, 157


Junkyard (1982) 42, 89 Kicking Against the Pricks (1985) 33, 44 Let Love In (1994), 22, 92, 148, 154 Murder Ballads, The (1996) 13, 21, 52, 53–4, 92, 119, 148, 155, 157, 177 Mutiny (EP) 42, 43, 145, 154 No More Shall We Part (2001) 181 Nocturama (2003) 21 Prayers on Fire 41, 145 Tender Prey (1988) 147, 174 Your Funeral… My Trial (1986) 146 Cave, Nick, Lectures: ‘The Flesh Made Word’ (1996) 57, 142, 143–4, 145, 146, 162 Cave, Nick, Prose: And the Ass Saw the Angel 7, 48, 53, 97ff. see also main entry ‘Black Pearl, The’ 90–91 Nick Cave Stories (2007) 107 ‘Secret Life of the Love Song, The’ 142–3, 193, 194, 196 ‘Story of the Baboons, the Hyenas and the Moose, The’ 189 Cave, Nick, Songs: ‘Abattoir Blues’ 23, 195 ‘(Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For?’ 148 ‘As I Sat Sadly By Her Side’ 14, 18 ‘Better the Devil You Know’ 193 ‘Big Jesus Trash-Can’ 88 ‘Black Crow King’ 7, 89, 154, 156–7 ‘Box for Black Paul, A’ 7, 91 ‘Brompton Oratory’ 168–71, 178 ‘Christina the Astonishing’ 157 ‘City of Refuge’ 175 ‘Crow Jane’ 155, 157 ‘Curse of Milhaven, The’ 53–4 ‘Darker with the Day’ 171 ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’ 149 ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow’ 117 ‘Foi Na Cruz’ 147 ‘From Her to Eternity’ 112, 115 ‘Gates of the Garden’ 117, 181–2 ‘Get It On’ 93–4, 126, 127 ‘Go Tell the Women’ 24, 132, 149–50 ‘God Is in the House’ 183–4 ‘Good Son, The ‘ 154, 157


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

‘Grinder Man Blues’ 133 ‘Hallelujah’ 182–3 ‘Hammer Song’ 50 ‘Hard on for Love’ 53 ‘Idiot Prayer’ 171 ‘In the Ghetto’ 154 ‘Into My Arms’ 112, 172–3 ‘John Finn’s Wife’ 157 ‘King Ink’ 7, 41, 86–7, 91 ‘Lay Me Low’ 7, 21, 92 ‘Let the Bells Eing’ 195 ‘Love Bomb’ 132 ‘Mercy’ 174 ‘Mercy Seat, The’ 48, 109, 119, 147, 173, 179–81 ‘Mutiny in Heaven’ 145–6 ‘Nature Boy’ 55, 195–6 ‘Nick the Stripper’ 41, 66, 70–73, 83, 86, 87 ‘No Pussy Blues’ 131, 132, 133, 134 ‘O My Lord’ 173, 198 ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’ 154, 157 ‘People Ain’t No Good’ 112 ‘Red Right Hand’ 18, 113, 154, 157 ‘Release the Bats’ (1982) 3, 88 ‘Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree’ 154, 156 ‘Secret Life of the Love Song’ (1998) 3 ‘Shivers’ 40 ‘Song of Joy’ 51, 53, 177–8 ‘Sonny’s Burning’ 7, 85–6, 93 ‘Stagger Lee’ 52 ‘Swampland’ 154, 156 ‘Sweetest Embrace, The’ 197 ‘There Is a Kingdom’ 173–4 ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ 60–61, 194, 195 ‘Thirsty Dog’ 22, 23 ‘To Be by Your Side’ 112 ‘Tupelo’ 119, 146, 154, 155, 156 ‘We Call Upon the Author’ 139, 149 ‘West Country Girl’ 197–9 ‘When I First Came to Town’ 147–8 ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ 92, 191 Cave, Tim 35 ‘Cavemen’ 43 CDs 5, 124, 130–32

celebrity 83, 92, 113, 116, 189 authenticity 83, 87 death 7, 84, 94 myth of 90, 94 parody of 88, 89 and power 83, 87 censors 183 challenge 1, 73, 83, 86, 87, 91, 93 chaos 102, 107 characters 20, 53, 88, 89, 94, 98ff., 104, 113, 115ff., 120, 132ff., 155, 159, 164, 176, 184 child/children 6, 55, 68, 99, 100, 101, 106, 146, 155, 156, 158, 159, 161, 192 childbirth 100, 155 choir 196 choreography 67, 68, 73, 74 Christ figure 155; see also Jesus Christ Christianity 13, 139, 140, 141, 164, 168, 174, 178 see also Jesus Christ ‘chthonian’ tradition 51, 52 Churchill, W. 127, 189 cinema 4, 7, 39, 109, 112 American 117 Australian 109, 117, 118, 119 Cave’s love of 110–11 see also film scripts; films cities 14, 20 civil society 141 Clark, Tony 1 cleansing 176 clichés 5, 18, 48, 49, 84, 94, 111, 168, 193, 194, 199 Cohen, Leonard 4, 38, 40, 44, 52, 112n. Cohen, Tony 40, 41, 42, 43 collaboration 110, 112, 114, 126 collecting 99, 102 collections 100, 101, 102, 105, 107 collective unconscious 158 colonialism 49, 53, 176 communication 27, 90, 91, 100, 123, 188 communion 170 compassion 18, 20, 23, 182 Complete Lyrics 1978–2007, The 194 computers 16, 19, 20, 28 Concrete Vulture 33, 35 confrontation 83, 84, 85, 91, 93, 125, 167

Index confusion 142, 149 Connor, Steven 127n. conscious mind 158, 160 consciousness 20, 92, 160 construction 129, 145 context 8, 49, 51, 53, 54, 61, 71, 74, 93, 117, 154, 192, 193, 195 Corbijn, Anton 3 Cramps, The 40 creation 127, 128, 130, 131 creativity 8, 142–3, 149, 158, 189, 199 and God 142, 149, 162–3 and melancholy 189, 190, 193–4 and sorrow 193 crime 52, 180 Crime and the City Solution 39, 40, 41, 70 critics 91, 187 critique 73, 75, 83, 89, 90, 110 Cronenberg, David 84 ‘crossing over’ 129 cruelty 22, 41, 97, 99, 130, 171 cultural scenes 6, 67, 68 cultural studies 4 culture 57, 61, 69 and gender/sexuality 67, 68 and religion 140, 141 curiosity 13, 19, 101 Dalton, Stephen 48 Dalziell, Tanya 8 dance 6, 65, 73 and gender 65, 66 physicality of 74 as rock parody 70 danger 7, 74, 113 Danks, Adrian 7 darkness 18, 21, 50, 51, 52, 116, 173, 174, 184 Deakin, Alfred 54 death 7, 40, 51, 53, 54, 84, 85, 88, 93, 94, 99, 101, 155, 158, 180, 182, 193 and religion 140, 141 and the unconscious 159, 160 Death of a Ladies’ Man 112 decadence 43, 50 decay 99, 101 deconstruction 39, 87, 179 deformity 156, 158, 164


depression 50, 127, 189 Derrida, J. 143, 144, 145 desire 143, 167, 174, 179, 182, 192 Devil 170, 178 dialogue 115, 116, 117, 118, 161, 167, 172, 179, 181 diaries 102, 104, 107 Didion, Joan 14 digital media 20 diorama 25 Dirty Pearl 48–9 disappointment 20, 107, 194, 197 discomfort 74 discourse 4, 158 religious 140, 141, 142, 147, 149, 164, 171, 175 disillusionment 73, 148, 194 disintegration 105 displacement 114 distortion 123, 127, 128, 133 Dives 15 divine intervention 172, 173 divine kingdom 173, 174, 184 divine retribution 147, 148, 154, 155, 168, 176 divinity, inner 21 Doors, The 35 Doty, Alexander 77 doubleness 176 doubt 172, 173, 183, 184 Dougary, Ginny 2 dress 2 drugs 40, 41, 42, 67, 84, 90, 146 duende 193 duplicity 75 DVDs 114n., 119 Dylan, Bob 4, 21, 32, 34, 52, 109n., 126, 128n., 140, 148 Eaglestone, Robert 8 earnestness 52, 61, 77 effeminacy 76, 77 egalitarianism 128 ego 88, 128, 158, 168, 187 electric chair 180 Eliade, M. 167 Eliot, T.S. 102 Ellis, Nick 18


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Ellis, Warren 1, 2, 18, 112, 123, 126, 198 elitism 33, 61 Elvis: That’s the Way It Is 153 emotion 102, 110 enclosure 105, 106 ‘enemies of creation’ 127 England 40, 47, 66, 73ff. English literature 51, 53, 54, 59 environment 28, 112, 117, 119 eros 143, 148 eroticism 8, 71, 77, 146, 167, 168, 170, 182, 196 eschatology 174 Europe 41 Evans, Raymond 67 event 70, 87, 91, 94, 99, 116, 129, 146, 155, 196 evil 97, 113, 149, 157, 159, 174, 176, 180 excess 7, 53, 71, 113, 128, 168 narrative 97–8, 99, 100, 102, 105, 106 excitement 74, 78 existentialism 84, 92, 140, 142 experience 144, 145 exploitation 86, 87 failure 117, 134, 142, 184, 194 fame 4, 84, 92, 135 see also celebrity families 22, 23, 24, 25, 51, 58, 69, 101, 104, 157, 164, 176, 177 father 57, 59 fear 23, 31, 141, 143, 182, 184 feedback 123, 127, 128 femininity 67, 72, 76, 158, 160, 161, 162, 191 fiction 90 see also novels; stories film scripts 112, 115, 116–19 films 1, 2, 3, 7, 19, 43, 50, 109ff., 113, 119, 180, 188 criticism 114, 118 songs in 112–13, 115 see also cinema; film scripts; Westerns finitude 143 fixity 76, 77 Flanagan, Martin 118, 120 flesh 2, 8, 103, 164, 167, 168, 169ff., 184; see also body

flood 19, 154, 155, 156, 165 forgiveness 147, 180 form 102, 103 Forster, Russell 51, 52 found objects see fragments; objects fragmentation 7, 98, 103, 106 fragments 98, 99, 101, 102, 105, 107 biblical 98, 99 and causality 105 forms of 103 intertextual 98, 99, 103 narrative 100, 106 Franz, Marie-Louise von 159 Freshman, The 112 Freud, S. 57, 130, 159 Frith, Simon 124, 125, 129, 132n., 135 fundamentalism 174, 175, 176, 183 game 131 garage rock 40, 128 garden 181, 182 Garon, Jesse 155 gays 67, 72, 75 gaze 71, 130 gender 6, 41, 69, 161 and dance 65, 67, 71–2, 74ff. and sexuality 71, 72, 75, 76 transgression 76 geneticists 150 gestures 6, 24, 49, 71, 73, 76, 89, 90, 101, 111, 123, 124, 131, 135 Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) 109, 110, 113, 115–16 performance 115–16 script 115, 116 soundtrack 112, 115 Gibson, William 16, 19, 20 Girard, René 176–7, 178 glam rock 34, 35 Glass, Keith 37, 38, 40 GoBetweens, The 34, 38, 41, 42, 43 God 18, 21, 23, 24, 97, 100, 104, 106, 148, 164, 168, 170 belief in 148, 172, 173 and creative imagination 142, 162 experience of 144, 145 and rhetoric 143, 144, 149

Index see also divine intervention; divine retribution goddess 22 Goethe 193 Goldberg, Ken 19 Goldman, Paul 70 good 180 good son 156, 157, 158, 159 Gordon, Jan B. 98 gospel music 196, 197 Gothic novel fragments and objects in 98, 100, 104 house/castle 104–5 Gothic style 5, 7, 35, 40, 50, 52, 53, 87, 88, 94, 97–8, 104ff., 167, 168, 171, 179, 190 grace 120, 172, 180, 193 Great Mother archetype 159, 160, 161 Grey, Garry 37 grief 168, 177, 179 Grinderman project 84, 123 and audience 123, 129, 130, 131, 134, 135 CD artwork 124, 130–32 ‘grinderman’ terminology 133 imagery 127, 130, 131 intent of 123, 126, 127, 131 as performance 123, 124, 126ff., 129, 131, 132, 135 persona 134 production values 123, 125, 128 ‘stripped down’ approach 123–5, 132, 135 grotesque 41, 52, 87, 160, 163, 164, 165 Gucci award 2 Gudaz, Hhalil 3 Gudinski, Michael 40, 68 Hanson, Amy 5, 35n., 51n. Hart, Carol 7, 120 Harvey, Alex 33, 35, 44 Harvey, Mick 3, 26, 34, 35, 37, 42, 43, 44, 45, 70, 74, 112, 145, 191n. Harvey, P.J. 111, 112 Hawkins, Stan 75, 76 Hazlewood, Lee 44 heroes 18, 19, 21, 52, 114, 128 heroin 146


heterosexuality 68, 72, 77 Hillcoat, John 1, 109, 110, 111, 112, 115, 116, 117, 119 history 20, 115, 120, 181 hollowness 89 homoeroticism 71, 72, 75, 77 homophobia 69, 72 homosexuality 72 see also gays; queerness Hooker, John Lee 165 hope 15, 181, 182 horror 15, 23, 35, 57, 88, 113, 160, 177, 181 Hoskin, David 118 Hoskyns, Barney 85 house, Gothic 104–5 Howard, Rowland 26, 32, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 44, 70, 71, 72, 75 humanity 13, 21, 140, 145, 168, 173, 176, 180, 188, 195 humour 47, 48, 49, 52, 55, 61, 94, 133, 163, 172, 190, 193–4 Hunt, Holman 190–91, 192, 195 hyperbole 88 hypermasculinity 72, 73, 76, 77 Icelandic Vesturport Theatre 2 ideal 22, 114, 130, 141, 142, 164 idealised space 128 identity 52, 59, 71, 76, 104, 114 Iggy Pop 33, 36, 38, 42, 43, 44 illumination 190, 191, 196 images 2, 8, 15, 22, 48, 50, 55, 66, 71, 89, 91, 102, 117, 118, 119–20, 127, 129, 130, 131, 153 archetypal 158, 165 biblical 147, 155, 162 imagination 6, 129, 142, 144, 156, 158, 162, 173, 178, 182, 183, 184, 188, 189, 194, 195 immediacy 6, 86, 91, 111, 117, 125 immolation 85, 86 incarnation 170, 173, 174 individuation 158 infants 51, 159 inscription 102 insects 86, 87, 100, 101 ‘inside’ 129


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

inspiration 8, 36, 55, 127, 144, 153, 162, 163 integrity 91, 92 internet 19, 20 interpretation 53, 70, 86, 90, 93, 135 intimacy 19, 197, 198 inversions 48, 49, 52, 156, 163–5 irony 56, 75, 83, 88, 180, 194 isolation 134, 188 James, Clive 49 Jayasinghe, Laknath 6, 7 Jesus Christ 1, 15, 21, 22, 23, 88, 99, 100, 105, 106, 140, 142, 144, 146, 147, 148, 156, 168, 169, 187, 188, 190 Jews 144 Job 23 Johnny Suede (1991) 113 Johnson, Robert 133 Johnson, Steven 17 Johnston, Ian 70, 84, 88, 154 Jones, Angela 7 Joyce, James 24 judgement 91, 175 Jung, Carl 158, 159, 162 junkie 84, 87 justice 147, 168, 175, 176, 180–81 divine 180, 184 human 179, 180, 181 retributive 179, 180 juxtaposition 88 Kafka, F. 127, 189 Kant 140, 149 Keats, John 51, 54, 56, 194 Kelly, Ned 54, 58 Kicking Against the Pricks (2005) 5 kinesthesia 67, 68 king 7, 43, 89–90, 155, 156, 165, 173 King, Martin Luther 15 kiss, the 72, 76 knowledge 19, 77, 141, 143, 172, 189 Kristeva, Julia 159, 171 Kruger, Debbie 5 land 117, 119 Lane, Anita 41, 48

language 48, 49, 51, 60, 61, 102, 123, 125, 132, 142, 144, 145, 170, 199 and God 196 limits of 188, 190, 192, 193 and melancholy 192, 193 prolixity of 187 Las Vegas 27, 153, 154, 161 law 41, 53, 133, 144, 147, 150, 180 Lazarus 14, 15 Lazarus, Emma 15 legacy 91, 92 lesbians 67, 75 Lewis, Tom E. 2 light 18, 21, 173, 174, 184 Light of the World, The 190–91, 192, 195 liminality 74, 171, 172 listener 131; see also audience lists 102, 103, 107 literalism 53, 54, 90, 112, 132, 134 literature 4, 20, 25, 26, 39, 41, 49, 56, 59, 103, 112, 119 see also poetry live performance 83, 87, 123, 125, 154 logos 144, 150, 178 London 40, 42, 43, 65, 73 longing 114, 142, 180, 184, 193 Lorca, Federico G. 193 Los Angeles 14, 16, 18, 109 loss 101, 143, 169, 191, 193 see also absence love 8, 13, 14, 15, 21, 45, 93, 134, 140, 141, 148, 168, 172, 179, 182, 187 divine 170–71, 196 in popular culture 198 and violence 178, 197 love songs 13, 18, 21, 45, 142–3 and God 143, 148 and melancholy 192, 196 prolixity of 187 and silence 196–7, 198 and sorrow 193, 196–8 lovers 168–70, 172, 178, 182, 198 Lowenstein, Richard 50 Lucas, George 19 Luke, gospel of 169 lyrics 8, 23, 25, 26, 42, 50–51, 54, 55, 112, 118 language of 187–8

Index and male failures 194 and poetry 194–6 and theology 168ff. McCredden, Lyn 8 McDonald, Paul 66 McDonnell, Evelyn 124 McEvoy, Emma 187n. McGuckin, Genevieve 41 McLeod, Mike 54 magic 20, 40 mainstream 3, 18, 38, 48, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 75, 76, 78, 124 males 128, 194 attitude to women 132–3 in private performance 131, 132 Manchester 65 Hacienda club 66, 73 Manicheanism 174, 175 maps 102, 103, 104 Marcus, Greil 153, 155, 165 Mardi Gras dances 67, 75 Mark, Gospel According to 187, 188, 190 marketing 7 Marshall, P. David 83, 87 Martel, Yann 23 Martin, Adrian 118, 120 Mary 146 masculinity 6, 66, 69, 133 and dance routines 67, 68, 71ff. and sexuality 77 subversion of 70, 71, 72, 75, 76 masturbation 130, 131 meaning 60, 61, 86, 98, 189, 199 media 3, 4, 5, 38, 48, 50, 71, 87, 110 mediation 144, 145 melancholy 8, 50, 101, 113, 171 of absence 187, 190 art and 189–92ff. and creativity 193–4 and God 189, 190 and language 188 and love songs 192, 196–8 Melbourne 1, 3, 6, 14, 31, 36, 43, 107 Arts Centre 188 Crystal Ballroom 32, 39, 65, 66, 69–70, 76, 77 pub rock scene 68


Tiger Lounge 31, 37, 38 Meldrum, Molly 37 melodrama 39, 50, 110 Meltdown festival 44 Meltzer, Larry 5 memory 28, 104, 106, 149, 198 men see males menace 92, 113, 116, 117 mercy 174, 180 Metallica 3 metaphors 27, 90, 93, 102, 133, 140 middle class 69 Mifflin, Margaret 48, 60 Milne, Bruce 37, 38 Milton, John 53, 178 mimicry 49, 54 Minogue, Kylie 3, 53, 85, 92–3, 111, 193 misinterpretation 85, 90, 91, 92, 93 misogyny 41, 48, 50, 53, 132 mob 90, 91 modernity 139, 140–41, 143, 193 Monash University 2 Moore, Thomas 191 moose 188, 189–90, 192 morality 116, 117, 120, 149 mother 17, 51, 97, 100, 101, 104, 105, 106, 157, 158, 159, 160, 161, 162, 165 Moyers, Bill 17, 22 murder 52, 53, 104, 113, 148, 157, 177 murderers 53, 97, 148, 171, 177, 178 Murphie, Andrew 114, 115 Mushroom Records 40, 68 music 193, 196 and lyrics 188, 189, 194 music industry 193, 194 music journalism 23, 38, 48 music scores 1, 3 musical equipment 130 music styles 125 musical creation 123, 128, 130, 131 musicians 20 mystery 39, 145, 149 mysticism 15, 18, 144 mythology 3, 8, 13, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 51, 84, 93, 128, 133, 159 see also Presley, Elvis


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

narrative 42, 70, 107 excess 97–8, 99, 102, 105, 106 fragmentary 100 structure 98–100, 102, 106 unity 98 nationalism 69 nature 56, 99, 195, 196 New Testament 142, 145, 146, 147, 169; see also Luke, gospel of; Mark, Gospel According to New York 14 New York Dolls 33, 35, 36, 38 nightmare 130 NME 43, 91 norms 66, 67, 68, 71, 72, 73, 76, 77, 78 nostalgia 101, 117, 153, 188, 193 notebooks 16, 20, 22, 25, 27, 28, 188 novels 20, 58, 90, 155ff. see also And the Ass Saw the Angel objects 98, 100ff., 105, 107, 188, 189 obscenity 70, 71, 88, 130 O’Connor, Flannery 164 oedipal narrative 57 O’Keefe, Johnny 67 Old Testament 145, 146, 147, 168, 174 Olsen, Ollie 37, 39 order 102, 103 Original Seeds CDs 5, 33 Orpheus 195 other 145, 160, 171, 198 ‘outside’ 129, 131 Overland 52 Ovid 159 Oz rock 68–9, 72 Pagels, Elaine 13 pain 17, 85, 103, 146, 149, 160, 171, 183 paintings 118, 188, 190ff. parody 54, 56, 70, 72, 75, 76, 77, 85, 87, 88ff., 114, 115, 184 parts 98, 106 past 101, 104 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) 109n., 117 pelvic thrusts 74, 75 performance 6, 7, 52, 65, 70, 73, 78 double nature of 135

entrapment of 86–7 construction of 129 and Grinderman 123, 124, 131, 132, 135 and masculinity 66, 67, 72, 75 meaning of 86 physicality of 74, 85 private 131, 132 religious idea of 143, 145, 146 and the sacred 179, 184 performance art 178–9 performer and audience 83, 85–7, 90, 94, 129ff., 134, 135 and control 85, 87 death of 84, 85 male 131–2 name of 87 performing monkey 130, 132 Perlmutter, Dawn 178–9 persona 7, 40, 52, 60, 70, 84, 85, 87ff., 93, 94, 132, 134, 135, 194ff., 198, 199 change of 88 screen 109, 111, 113ff. personal sphere 99, 142, 179 Pew, Tracy 3, 26, 35, 42, 43 Phillips, Sam 155 photographs 1, 2, 17, 25, 27, 101, 104, 119–20, 130, 188, 191 physicality 74, 85, 94, 115, 125, 176 piano 44 Pierce, Jason see Spaceman, Jason Plato 19 pleasure 67, 71, 74, 75, 77, 78, 131, 135 poetry 2, 6, 23, 26, 51, 53, 54–5, 59–60, 99, 102, 103, 118, 146 and melancholy 192, 194–6 politics 6, 20, 48, 66, 69, 75, 141 popular culture 3, 4, 8, 31, 69, 73, 77, 164, 193, 198 popular music 4, 68, 83, 193 popularity 83, 84, 88, 92, 93 pose 124, 135 post-colonialism 59, 60, post-punk 31, 38, 45, 83 power 83, 85, 87, 164, 168 Presley, Elvis 8, 88, 146, 153–65 and carnivalesque inversion 163–4, 165

Index decline of 153, 154 duality of 161–2 influence of 154 life 155–6, 161 myth of 153, 156, 157–8, 163, 165 and Puer Aeternus archetype 158, 161, 163 Press, Joy see Reynolds, Simon and Press, Joy Primitive Calculators, The 39, 40, 41 Prince 75, 76 prison 115, 116 private self 93 private view 123, 129, 130, 131, 134, 135, 150 profane, idea of 8, 167, 181, 184 see also body; flesh promise 124, 135 prophecy 173, 179 Proposition, The (2005) 1, 2, 109, 110, 114, 116–20, 175–6 critical views 119–20 draft script 117 images 120 influences in 119 locations 119 script 112, 117–19, 175 soundtrack 112, 118, 175 structure 118 prosopopeia 139, 140, 145 prostitutes 132 psychology 158, 187, 199 public space 129 Puer Aeternus archetype 156, 158–62, 163, 164 negative side of 162–3 punk rock 19, 20, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 44, 69 queerness 66–8, 72, 75, 76, 77 quiet 21, 118, 120, 196 Qutb, Sayyid 141 Rabelais 163 radio 3, 5 Radio Birdman 33, 34, 36, 37, 39, 41 rage 90, 127, 142 Ramones 34, 36, 37, 38


Raw Power 36 rawness 39, 123, 125, 126, 128, 176 reader 98, 100 reality 129, 135 Reals, The 37 reason 143 rebel 133, 161, 162, 164, 180 recorded images 66 redemption 147, 163, 164, 178, 184 Reed, Lou 36, 38, 52 referent 101 refuge 173, 174, 175 rehearsal room 128–9, 130 Reid, Ian 54 religion 8, 13, 18, 20, 23, 39, 53, 97, 99, 164, 167 and civil society 141 and creativity 142–3, 149 and culture 140, 141 and eroticism 170 and modernity 140–41, 143 Nick Cave and 139, 140, 142–3, 144, 145ff., 148, 150 and performance 143, 145, 146 and personal sphere 142 and politics 141 and pop music 140, 143, 148 and reason 143 and rhetoric 139, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 150 and violence 176, 178 religious experience 144, 145 religious ideas 140 religious sensibility 140, 145, 149, 150 repetition 86, 88, 100, 102, 173 repression 52, 68 retribution 147, 148, 154, 155, 168, 175, 176 revenge 118, 175; see also retribution Reynolds, Simon and Press, Joy 4, 48–9, 161 rhetoric 139, 143, 144ff., 150 Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest (1997) 113 rhyme 59, 60 rhythm 18, 43, 169, 170, 181, 184 ridiculousness 54, 88, 93, 94, 127, 190 Riley, Vikki 65, 77


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

rituals 20, 21, 170, 178, 179 Road to God Knows Where, The (1990) 109 rock and roll 10, 24, 40, 42, 44, 48, 67, 70 discourses 125, 193 hero 128 ideology 128, 133 as performance 129 return to roots of 123, 125 rock culture 8, 65, 66, 73, 75, 76 rock ‘n’ roll see rock and roll rock persona 70, 72, 88 rock stars 7, 52, 83, 113, 124, 128, 133, 145 Rolling Stones 41, 42, 72 Romanticism 6, 50, 51, 54, 59, 61, 84, 123, 167, 195 sacred, idea of 8, 167, 168 and art 171, 176, 178–9, 183, 184 and flesh 167, 168, 169ff., 184 and justice 180–81 and performance 178–9, 184 and profane 8, 167, 181 and sexuality 182 and violence 173, 176–8, 179 sacrifice 146, 156, 171, 177, 178, 179 sadness 44, 118, 193, 194 Saints, The 33, 34, 36, 37, 38, 39 salvation 164, 178, 180 Sarig, Roni 167 Satan 18, 23 satire 53, 89, 163, 184 Savage, Conway 60 saviour 180 scapegoat 176 scatological humour 115, 163 scholarship 3–5 Schueppel, Uli M. 109 science 15, 19, 26, 150 science fiction 19, 20, 26, 113 Sclavunos, Jim 123, 126, 132 screenplays 1, 2, 3 secularism 8, 140 Sedgwick, Eve 71 self 101, 172, 179, 199 self-awareness 7 self-consciousness 75, 117, 123, 131, 142 self-destruction 41, 50, 84, 85 self-exposure 124, 130, 179

self-mutilation 101, 161 self-parody 89 self-reflexivity 123, 134, 135 Sex Pistols 31, 33, 36, 38, 41 sexuality 35, 40, 48, 52, 55, 56, 66, 67, 86, 88, 133–4, 178, 179 ambiguous 71, 75 female 192 and the sacred 170, 173, 182 shock rock 35 Shrek 2 (2004) 50, 112 sign 101, 125, 155, 163 silence 102, 190, 195, 196, 197, 198 Simone, Nina 44 sin 141, 147, 155 Sinatra, Nancy 34, 44 sincerity 52, 61, 123, 124, 187, 194 sketches 90, 188 Smith, Patty 36 society 163, 176, 194 solidarity 128, 130 son 56, 57, 161 see also bad son; good son songs 110, 117, 172 in films 112–13, 115, 118 Songwriters Speak (2005) 5 songwriting 51, 52, 103, 168, 172 Sony Walkman 19, 20 sorrow 191, 193, 196 sound, melancholic 191 soundtracks 112, 113, 115, 118, 197 ‘Southern Gothic’ 40 space 39, 41, 43, 66, 68, 70, 74, 78, 103, 105, 128, 129, 130, 131, 171, 190, 195, 198 Spaceman, Jason 140, 141 Spain 193 spectacle 70, 83, 91, 130, 132, 180 speech 102 spirit 13, 15, 17, 115, 144, 169, 171 Star Wars 19 Stevens, Wallace 140 Stewart, Susan 102 Stooges, The 41; see also Iggy Pop stories 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 27, 28, 44, 51, 57, 107, 118, 119, 133, 141, 189 love 198 ‘straight queerness’ 77, 78

Index Stranded (1996) 5 Strathman, Christopher 103 strip-tease 124 subcultures 69, 70, 77 subjectivity 114, 117, 158, 198 subversion 100, 163 suffering 18, 23, 84, 145, 146, 170 surrealism 39, 42, 85, 86, 130 Sweeney, Kathy 49 Sydney 14, 43, 67, 75 symbolic exchange 101 symbols 13, 24, 27, 155, 159 technology 15, 19, 20, 26, 188, 195 television 5, 17, 22, 113, 195 tension 39, 65, 74, 76, 86, 113, 146, 147, 169, 173 terror 102, 130, 163, 168 texts 3, 6, 8, 53, 61, 98, 102, 187, 189 fragmentary 98, 99, 103, 106 theatricality 110, 116 theology 8, 20, 167, 168, 170, 174, 179, 181 apocalyptic 175 of sacred and profane 178, 184 things 32, 102, 107, 181 see also fragments; objects Thomas, Gospel of 13, 21 3RRR radio station 3 time 16, 17, 105, 129, 195 timidity 182, 183, 184 To Have and to Hold (1996) 110, 112 Torres, Manuel 193 transcendence 61, 142, 143, 164, 169, 195 transgression 72, 76, 97 tropes 7, 76, 117, 133, 143, 146 truth 18, 49, 115, 124, 132, 147, 164, 180, 189 Turner, Victor 74 twins 99, 155, 157, 163, 165 unconscious mind 156, 158, 159, 160, 162, 163, 164, 165, 190 understanding 25, 77, 90, 91, 99, 144, 174, 184, 188 underworld 14, 23, 51, 172 unity 106 unmarked grave 102 unreality 129


Until the End of the World (1991) 113 Upton, Gillian 69, 77 vampire 88 vengeance 21, 146, 147, 155 victims 52, 53, 89, 148, 171, 176, 178 Victoria 6, 32, 47, 55 Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne 25 videos 66, 70, 110 viewer 72, 119, 120, 131 Viola, Bill 13 violence 7, 14, 20, 36, 74, 84, 85, 90, 97, 100, 113, 115, 116, 118, 120, 132, 167, 168, 171, 176, 180ff., 187, 192, 193 and love 178, 197 and the sacred 173, 176–8, 179 violins 198–9 virility 133, 134 Viswanathan, G. 53 voice 173, 188 Walker, Clinton 5, 6, 31ff., 74 Walker Brothers 42, 43 Walsh, Chris 35, 36, 37 Wangaratta 47, 56, 58 Warhol, Andy 84 Wark, McKenzie 4, 50, 92 Warracknabeal 47 weather 25 websites 5, 15, 19, 168 Wegener, Jeffrey 37, 41, 43 Weinstein, Deena 128n. Welberry, Karen 6 Wenders, Wim 50, 109, 113–15 Westerns 117, 118, 119, 176 Whirlywirld 39, 40 whole 98, 106 Williams, Evan 117 Williams, Mark 71 Winged Migration 112 Wings of Desire (1987) 109, 113–15 Wise Blood 164 Wiseman-Trowse, Nathan 8 women 41, 48, 56, 59, 131, 132–4, 170, 182, 191, 192, 197 hostility to 132 wordplay 49, 52, 60 words 102, 103, 107, 112, 116


Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave

Wordsworth, William 51, 54, 61, 132, 195 working-class 69 world 15, 16, 17, 19, 24, 26, 56, 102, 107, 114, 115, 119, 131, 141, 144, 149, 161, 168, 173, 174, 176, 181, 182, 184, 188 worship 170, 172, 179 writing 102, 103, 107

X-Files, The 18 Yeats, W.B. 14 Young Charlatans 37, 38 youth 159, 164, 182 Zero Effect 112